Government Digital Service Podcast
Government Digital Service Podcast #30: Tom Read talks GDS’s future strategy

Government Digital Service Podcast #30: Tom Read talks GDS’s future strategy

May 28, 2021

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Vanessa Schneider: 

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Vanessa Schneider and I am Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS. Today I'm joined by the Chief Executive Officer for GDS, and that's Tom Read. 

 

Tom, thank you so much for taking the time to be here today. I know that you joined GDS back in February, which in these times feels like an eternity. But could you please introduce yourself and what do you do to our listeners? 

 

Tom Read: 

Sure. And thank you for having me. So I'm Tom. I'm the Director General and Chief Executive of the Government Digital Service. As you said, I've been here just over 3 months now. So effectively my job is to set the strategy for the Government Digital Service, work out how it aligns with ministerial priorities, how much money we've got, what we're currently working on, and then keep out of people's way as much as possible and let people get on with delivery. That's sort of what I'm here for, I think. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

OK, I hear it's not your first rodeo at GDS: do you mind sharing how this experience is different? 

 

Tom Read: 

Yeah. So I was, I was at GDS from for about 2 years in 2013 to 2015. Back then, I mean, everything was quite different. I worked in Liam Maxwell's area, which was the sort of, the more, the tech area than the digital area, and I was brought in to run a technology transformation programme in the Cabinet Office itself, plus DCMS [Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport]. It was great fun, really good fun. 

 

How is it different? I don't know. It's... GDS back then was was smaller, much more sort of a scrappy start-up. It had this sort of triumvirate of real heavy hitters in Mike Bracken and Liam Maxwell and the Minister, Francis Maude, now Lord Maude. And so it had a really, it sort of felt very much on the bleeding edge and it was very much going out and trying to push down some doors to get people to-to let it exist and let it really make a difference. I think a lot of that spirit is still, still here in GDS. But there's a little thing I've written in-in our new strategy, which is we're not in start-up mode anymore. And I think that's it's quite important to recognise, we-we've, we've done that phase and now we're sort of maturing a little bit. So it's slightly different. But the spirit is the same. 

 

So after 2015, I basically I did 2 years of just like super intense work, like it was just, you know, really, really fun. So much fun but incredibly tiring. And I basically sort of said, right, that's, that's it. That's my little tour of duty in government done. And I-I went off and joined a consultancy and about 3 months in working for the consultancy, which was a lovely place, really lovely place, great people. I suddenly thought, ‘ack, I'm not done, actually. I-I-I really miss government already’. 

 

So later that year I applied for a few roles and I was successful in a role as the Chief Technology Officer at the Department for Business, as was. And I'd worked there with amazing people like Emma Stace, Mark O'Neill and other people, it was just - Andrew Greenway - it was, it was a really great team. And we really started to create a digital movement in that weird department because it's like a small policy department with loads of arm's length bodies. And it was good fun and we really got going. 

 

And then there was the machinery of government change. So energy and climate change came in, education went out so universities and things went out to education. And I don't know if any of our listeners have been through machinery of government changes, they're like mergers acquisitions in the private sector. I kind of saw the writing on the wall. I thought that there isn't space for, for 3 directors in what was to become BEIS [Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy]. 

 

And so I started to look around government and it happened. There was a vacancy coming up at the Ministry of Justice [MoJ] working for Sir Richard Heaton, who I worked to when I was at GDS, he was the Perm Sec[retary] of the Cabinet Office and one of my all time sort of heroes in government. And so I was sort of managed moved across to MoJ. And that's where I've been for the last 4 and a half years. Up until now, by a long way, the best job I've ever had in my career. It was just this incredible, meaningful work of helping some of the most vulnerable people in society to fix their lives and get an education and get their lives back on track. It was brilliant. So yeah, I've been, I've been in a few departments. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Well, they tend to say, don't meet your heroes, but it seems to have worked out really well for you. I also wanted to give a shout out to Emma Stace because the Department for Education Digital and Technology team has just launched their first podcast episode with Emma in it. 

 

Tom Read: 

Oh, awesome. Oh, well, fantastic. Well, listen to that one. She'll be amazing. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

[laughs] But also listen to us!

 

Tom Read: 

Obviously listen to us!

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So it's clear to me, just listening to you that you're passionate about digital government, always coming back to it as well and looking at your resume in general. But I was wondering why that was. What is the power of digital? 

 

Tom Read: 

What is the power of digital? That's a really good question. So the thing that's unique about digital teams in government, but also outside government, is we just have a relentless focus on users and how they work. And I know a lot of bits of government do that as well - it would be a bit insulting to policymakers to suggest we're the only people who do that. 

 

But any bit of digital design, whether you're working for a supermarket or a retailer or a bank or government, you have to design around how users use things because otherwise they don't use them. And then you're wasting everyone's time, right? In government, I think we've used digital, now more the word data, user needs, these sort of things, kind of as stalking horses, they're, they're ways of expressing designing things around how users work. And I just think that's a great opportunity. 

 

I also think government itself is fascinating because some some bits of government have been around for hundreds of years and some bits have been around for a thousand years. And without being simplistic, some of the processes haven't changed very much in that time. And so you can stick a website over it. But really, you need to look at the whole, you know, policy through to what outcomes you're trying to get, the process, and then digitise that. And I think that's really missing from how we talk about digital in a lot of cases. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So, you mentioned obviously that you've been here for 3 months and some people make a big deal out of it - the first 100 days somebody has spent in a new job, especially in a leadership position. Is there anything that you're keen to share that you've learnt in this time, or maybe you found something that surprised you? 

 

Tom Read: 

Yeah, I mean, just so much. It's quite weird hearing it's been 3 months actually, because, in the nicest possible way, it feels like a lot longer. And I do mean that in a positive way. I've learnt a lot. There's, there's a lot. GDS is a funny place because everybody's got an opinion about GDS just anywhere in government. And beyond actually, everyone's got an opinion about what's good, what's bad. There's a whole set of people on Twitter who seem to spend most of their lives just commenting on what on what GDS is doing. And it's really peculiar. And so coming in, or sort of back in, but, but into this role from a department has been fascinating. 

 

So it's sort of off the top of my head, a few things I've I've learnt. One is I think the, GDS is just completely full of, like, super intelligent, incredibly civic-minded people who care. And I think, yeah, I don't want to go on a soapbox rant about this, but that's probably the thing that people really miss when they're judging GDS, is just how much people care about, you know, service design and, you know, the underlying technology and content design, accessibility, all these things that really matter. It just, it really infuses everything when you're speaking to people. And there are people who have been here for like 7 or 10 years who just still have the same absolute passion for improving public services, which is amazing. I mean, I've got a short attention span, so a lot of respect for those sort of people. 

 

On the, on the, sort of, the more complex side. I think, the first, we still sort of hark back quite a bit to sort of the first 5 years of, of GDS, which I don't think is uncommon in a sort of quote unquote start-up. You hark back to the early days - I was speaking to a friend who works at Monzo recently. And he was saying everyone still talks about when there were 30 of us and we were trying to build from scratch. We're not like that anymore. So I think, I think a lot of people still look back at where we had all this support and we were crashing down doors and building things. And it was busy and we were on stage a lot. And then there were 5 years of much quieter GDS over the last 5 years - still doing very important work, but taking much more of a collegiate view. And I think one of the things I've been puzzling through over the last 3 months is how do you get the happy balance between those 2? I think maybe we need to get back a little bit into the setting direction and pushing delivery as well as working together. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah I mean, I think one of the things that people remember when they hearken back to those good old days is also the mottos that sprung up. There's a lot of stuff that we say at GDS that has spread beyond, that's really been used a lot. For instance, doing the hard work to make it easy for the user. So obviously our ambition is to make dealing with government easier. Where do you think we are in this mission? 

 

Tom Read: 

That's not what I thought you were going to ask me. So I think we're at a really interesting point. So thing, things that have been done well over the last 10 years, we talk a lot about the really good services. There are lots of services in government that are better than you would find in the private sector. And I think that the narrative that government's never going to be quite as good as the private sector: I've worked in the private sector. It's just not true. 

 

We're all roughly trying hard, dealing with legacy, dealing with complexity, competing demands, that kind of thing. So there are a bunch of things that have been done just incredibly well. So, you know, the passport service is just an exemplar. There are amazing things in digital tax. There's stuff we were doing at MoJ, there's there's stuff at DWP [Department for Work and Pensions], which is really, you know, pushing the boundary and properly, you know, micro-services, architectured services that will last and stand the test of time. 

 

Equally, I think I think we just declared victory way too early. So it's one of the first things I was sent when I joined GDS was, I was like, we've got a list of the the paper forms in government, you know, the, the services that have never been touched. And I was sent a spreadsheet with with 4,000 lines, and each line is a PDF or a Word doc, that a user has to download, fill in, so they need a printer, then they can fax or post it. So you either need a fax machine - I genuinely don't know how that, how that technology works in the digital age - or you go to the Post Office and I think it's just not good enough. 

 

So I think from that perspective, we've done a lot. We've embedded amazing digital talent across government. GOV.UK is standing firm and is still a really excellent sort of front end of government. But we've got a lot more to do. And I also think we're slightly, we have still been thinking in the context of 10 years ago, where it was a publishing layer and then individual silo transactions, I think we need to move beyond that now. We'll probably talk about that a bit more later. But I think we need to move beyond what was a good idea 10 years ago and iterate - use some of our, use some of our own secret sauce for that. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I am so curious. Where did you think I was going to go with that question? [laughs]

 

Tom Read: 

I thought you were going to ask me about some of the mottos [laugh from Vanessa] and whether they still stand up. So, you know, ‘the strategy is delivery’ and you've got on your laptop ‘Make things open. It makes things better.’ In fact, I've got it on mine as well. I-I thought you were going to ask about some of those things. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do, I mean, if you want to riff on that, go for it. [laughs] [laugh from Tom]

 

Tom Read: 

There is a lot to be said for the, the memory that goes with catchy, meaningful slogans like ‘strategy is delivery’. It's great because the strategy was never delivery. Right. The strategy was deliver something quickly and make it so good that once people come to tell you stop doing it, they'll look like idiots because you built something brilliant, fast and cheap. It's not-- the delivery isn't the strategy. Strategy is let's not talk about it. Let's let's deliver something and then we'll have something to show for it, which is great and similar with, you know, the talk about user needs, not government needs. It's still government needs. It's just if you build it around how users work, then the service is cheaper and it'll actually be used online. It's it's sort of proxies for for what we're trying to do. Big fan of that sort of proper marketing. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So I was wondering if you wanted to reflect on the mission of GDS now and for the next 3 years in context of the 5 points that you outlined in your blog post? 

 

Tom Read: 

Yeah, absolutely. So the first thing we're trying to do is we need to kind of say, what are we really going to focus on? Because it's, I don't just want a shopping list of what we're busy with. It's like what can we uniquely do in GDS? We've got this, like, incredibly privileged position of being in a centre of government. We're reasonably funded at the moment. Good ministerial support. What are we uniquely able to do in that position? Let's let's leave the departments to do, to do what they do. 

 

So we've we've we've come up with with 5 points, as you say, and I'll sort of rattle through them, but sort of explain why I think they matter. So the first and kind of most important one is we have to keep the things that we're already running running. So we, GOV.UK is a obviously fundamental part of what we do. We need it up to date, we need the publishing tools to be modern. We need to be iterating some of the design patterns around finding content, around exploring, sort of navigating content. And we need to re-platform it. It sits on a tech stack in the cloud. But but that's coming out of support. So so keeping things running, it's not always sexy, but it is the most important - if we do nothing else we'll keep GOV.UK running. 

 

The second thing we really want to go to is, focus on is, is kind of what I meant earlier around moving the dial from just doing transactional services. So we want to focus on what we're calling whole, whole services or solving whole problems for users. So an example. And we're not sure which examples we're going to use, right. But an example that that we're looking at at the moment is around having a baby. 

 

So if you if you are a person and you're having a baby, I've made a list here. Things you might need to know about, that government can help you with are: maternity pay, shared leave, maternity allowances, registering the birth, getting child benefits, getting tax credits, finding childminders, getting nursery places. And at the moment, you need to understand all of those things individually. Then you need to apply for each to work out whether you are eligible. It's, well, well-intentioned nonsense. And really what you should be able to do is what you would expect in a commercial transaction where you would go on, you would have your details already stored and it would say you are eligible for these 5 things. One click and we'll sort it out for you. 

 

And I think that's, maybe that's pie in the sky, there's so many reasons why that might not work. But that's what we're going to aim for. So so we're going to go hopefully for, as I said, really early days. And a lot of people have thought about this before. We are not unique in this, but we're going to look at maybe 5 or 10 ideas and try to push them through to delivery and work out: does GDPR stop us doing this, does money stop us doing this? Does the fundamental structure of government and accounting officers accountable to Parliament stop us doing this? I don't know, but we’re gonna have a good crack at it. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I think I saw on social media, because that's part of my role as well behind the scenes, that there has been work on that previously by the government, I think it was in the days of Directgov and Business Link, that life services was actually already a concept. So will it be resurfacing that kind of work? Are you going to look back at the old material and see what learnings you've made since? 

 

Tom Read: 

Probably, yeah. So Jerry Fishenden, formerly of this parish, blogged about tweeted about it. I think it was before Directgov actually, that that that screenshot. So that was kind of based around life events. So having a baby is one. I think, I think some of them aren't life events. Some of them are whole, just just whole problems, like going abroad isn't really a life event. But you do need to think about what - particularly now - you need to think about passports, COVID[-19], political unrest. You need travel insurance. You need, yeah, vaccinations, you need visas. You know, that's not real life experience. It's more a collection of whole problems to solve one thing, which is the person wants to go abroad and needs government help. So we'll definitely look back on on on on that thinking. There's very little new under the sun. But equally, we haven't done it yet. So we need to, we need to press on and deliver. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

No it's that agile principle of iteration, isn't it? 

 

Tom Read: 

Right, exactly. [laugh from Vanessa]

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

All right. You've obviously mentioned that we're looking at areas that maybe aren't being captured by government departments and also haven't had that attention previously. So I was wondering if there are still opportunities for us to learn from other departments in that area. I know, obviously, like the thing that you were mentioning with the forms, those are sort of those low-usage services, is that right? Will we be leaning on government departments that own those services a little bit or will it be solely in our purview? 

 

Tom Read: 

It's a really good question, we cannot do, there are bits that we can do ourselves from the centre, but they are quite limited. I talk to, I keep talking about the getting the balance right between centralisation and working with government departments, things like the long tail of digital forms in government. That's something we can't force people to do. The, we kind of have a two-part strategy here. 

 

So you'll be aware that there's a new bit of Cabinet Office called the Central Digital and Data Office. And basically that's set up to take the the strategy, policy, capability, those sorts of bits, and also the spend controls and like the mandate. And so they will be looking at which departments, which agencies, which bits of government still have a lot to do. And flagging that, being, you know, I don't know, a scorecard or something, but some way of measuring progress. 

 

We're ‘good cop’ in GDS. So our job is to build platforms, continue the work of government, so platforms, so Pay, Notify, we're going to build a way of submitting information in forms. And there may be 3 or 4 others that we're looking at. And the idea is if departments haven't digitised their simple lower transaction services, we'll give them everything that they need to do that, and we'll give them some help if they need some help to do it, and kind of slowly remove all the possible reasons why you wouldn't digitally transform. So we're the, we want to be the oil, the enablers to to help the long tails transform across central government primarily, but but also local government. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

And if you're interested in any of those products that Tom mentioned, we have a couple of podcast episodes that could be of interest [laughs]. So is there any chance that you can share more about what's happening at GDS right now with that focus?

 

Tom Read: 

So we're in planning stages, is what I'd say. So we've got some some platforms that are really quite mature now, so GOV.UK Notify, I don't have the data with me, but GOV.UK Notify has an awful lot of organisations using it. We're going live with the alert cell broadcast system. And other platforms we're in planning stages. It's really looking at what are the barriers to adoption. And then we're also going to spin up a team to look at what are the next 5, what are the next 5 things that should be done centrally, may have already be done in 5 departments. So can we bring those together and package it and offer it back as a service, or do we have a federated approach to the platforms? We need to look at those different options over the next 3 months. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, just to add in, it's been 2.9 billion messages sent since May 2016 when Notify started up. So honestly, hats off. 

 

Tom Read: 

It's cool. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

And a shout out to Pete Herlihy. I hope he's enjoying New Zealand. [laughs]

 

Tom Read: 

I'm sure he is. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah. So I was also wondering, I think there might be some work on single sign-on and personalisation. I was just wondering if you wanted to give a sneak preview on those?

 

Tom Read: 

Yeah, sure. So a single sign-on for government and a way of verifying your identity. So fundamental parts of our strategy for the next few years. We've got money this year. We've got a lot of political support for this. The, some of the most brilliant people I've ever worked with anywhere, worked on Verify over the last sort of 6 or 7 years, genuinely, just utterly brilliant technologists, designers and that sort of thing. And, and Verify worked, right. It's branded as like, that didn't work. It worked for millions and millions of people. 

 

Equally, there are some design patterns that that that that haven't quite worked. It didn't work for for certain sets of users in government. And we are now in a position where we take all of that learning and we're going to effectively build a new set of services that allow, as I said, a single sign-on for any services that need them across government and a way of proving your identity to government regardless of your social situation. 

 

I'm really excited about this. I'm genuinely excited about this for a couple of reasons. One is we've got all that learning from Verify that we can pick up on. Secondly, a load of governments around the world have done this now, they've they've they've gone out and built on what we did and they've built their own. Thirdly, we've got proper buy-in from across government, real buy-in from ministers and senior officials in DWP, HMRC [HM Revenue and Customs], Home Office. Everyone's kind of on board for this. They know this is needed and our new sort of, very sort of collaborative approach that we're taking is-is hopefully going to bear fruit.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

It's great to have those big hitters on board. Those are the services where users will find themselves logging in, in order to access the information that is specific to them, which I think brings us quite neatly onto personalisation, no? 

 

Tom Read: 

Sure. Yeah. You'll probably be getting the feel for this, that a lot of what we're talking about is interdependent. These aren't completely sort of separate silos of delivery. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Then what is in government, right? 

 

Tom Read: 

Well, exactly. So the way to imagine this, we're not simply building a portal, that's first thing to say. I know that’s sort of a bogey word in government and or digital design in general. GOV.UK for a lot of people is just there to get information from. And that's fine. That's fine. For for for other people, for whom government is very important because they don't access it 4 or 5 times a year, they need to go in quite regularly because they need a lot of help from government or they’re going through something quite complex in their lives. 

 

The concept is that you will use single sign-on to log on to a GOV.UK account. And from there, you will be able to access services ideally with one click, as I mentioned previously, you could have one click access to things you're eligible based on what we already know about you, or you can change your data. So the the great mythical beast in government is this thing called Tell Me Once. Right. So we we don't have a single register of citizens in UK government, but we have hundreds of them. We have, you know, our addresses, our names, dates of birth, addresses will be in a lot of databases across government. And if we move, I don't move very often because I'm at that stage in life, young folks move a lot and it's likely that most of those bits of data are wrong across government. 

 

So that's sort of, a by-product of a personalisation is we should be able to update that data and push it out to other parts of government in a really seamless way. And what's really exciting about personalisation, though, is there are, there's so much information on GOV.UK and so many services. You kind of need a Ph.D. in Government Studies to be able to to know how what you're what you're eligible for, what's out there. If you could personalise it by saying, you know, so for me, I'm in my 40s, I have children, I travel sometimes, I earn a certain amount. The amount of information on GOV.UK will shrink right down to, I'm making up numbers here, but 5, 10 per cent of that information and I should only be offered services that are relevant to me. 

 

And I think from that you're doing, you know, that old adage of - it's written on your laptop - doing the hard work to make it simple. We're doing the hard work of trying to get information about a person and yes, shrink down the complexity of government to what, to what is relevant. And equally, we're not going to mandate this, right? That's really, really key to remember. If people don't want to do that, you will be able to go into your GOV.UK account and, you know, show what data we're linking and and de-link it. If you don't want to do even that, you know, you can continue accessing services how they are now and certainly we’ll always have an assisted digital method for people who don't want to or can't access services in the ways I'm describing. But I think personalisation is-is the big, our big play over the next few years. I think it will be transformational for a lot of citizens. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, you mentioned the next few years. Obviously currently you're in post the next 3 years, am, is that right? 

 

Tom Read: 

Well, no, that's that's kind of artificial. I think, I'm here forever. Right. So what I've been trying to say to people, I think because GDS has had quite a lot of change at the top, I'm just trying to make it clear that I'm not going anywhere anytime soon. I think if I'm still here in 5 years, you know, maybe somebody should start to say: ‘you should probably freshen up soon’. Equally, I'm certainly not staying less than 3 or 4 years. I mean, we've got a lot to do. I'm already enjoying it.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I was going to say, this is this is what you're doing for 2021 to 2024, is that right? 

 

Tom Read: 

Yeah. I've, I've, I've tried to-to sort of focus on the current Parliament cycle. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Right, but it's a lot. [laughs]

 

Tom Read: 

It's a lot. It's a lot. And we don't do anything. I also didn't, I sort of think it's slightly artificial sometimes to say, you know, here's our 10-year strategy. Who knows what on earth is going to be happening in 10 years in terms of maybe they'll be tech innovations or maybe they'll be - more likely - machinery of government changes or something else. So I want us to focus on, you know, more than a year, less than 5 years. So our Parliamentary cycle, it also slightly secretly sharpens the focus for colleagues in the Treasury and so on for for the upcoming spending review. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Very strategic, I see. I know why they hired you. [laugh from Tom] Do you want to dabble in a bit of future casting? What happens beyond, or you know, say we achieve everything that you set out? What can we do after? 

 

Tom Read: 

I have absolutely no idea, I don't think. So, I think - what do I think? - The, the, the-I'm sort of stepping into areas of the Central Digital and Data Office here rather than GDS, I think. But. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

It will influence our work. No doubt. 

 

Tom Read: 

We work hand in glove already. It really will influence our work. I mean, things that I'm really interested in long, long-term is the there is still a relatively low digital literacy across senior policymakers and ministers, you know, with some notable exceptions across government. And I think that will change organically. I think that is changing already. But I'd quite like to see, yeah, without wanting to be hyperbolic, I think fundamentally the way we do policymaking, it's not wrong. But it's the way we've done it for a lot of time. 

 

What what what slightly worries me about that way of doing it is 2 things. One is we've never properly stopped and really understood what are the most important policy changes for users, for people out there. You know, really, would this policy change your life or is there something else that we could do for the same amount of money with the same ambition that would change your life more? And I think we need to, the very qualitative, but I think we need to do more of that when we're doing policymaking right at the beginning. That's one. 

 

Two: We tend to use data to prove hypotheses rather than than to suggest policy ideas. Really, I think we should be, you know, the really good work that Alison Pritchard is doing over at the Office for National Statistics around creating a data analytics platform that takes government data from all departments. That that's key because you should be able to look at the data, use, you know, authentic machine learning or similar, or just complex algorithms and say ‘find the connections’ that we don't quite know. What is that group, that for some reason they share a set of character traits or share a set of socio-economic situations? And then later on, they are the people who end up in prison or big users of the NHS or similar. And let's create some policy initiatives from the data. I think that would be spectacular. So anyway, so once we fix, once we've fixed all of the long tail of government and we've made GOV.UK personalised and we've done a digital identity service, we've moved all the legacy technology in the government to the public cloud, we've made everything secure. Yeah, that's where we'll go next, I think. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Obviously yeah, that-that's some amazing work to look forward to, I hope. But I think we should finish on the hardest-hitting questions that I have for you today. 

 

And we'll start off with Marmite. Yes or no? 

 

Tom Read: 

Uh, yes. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Working from home or working on location? 

 

Tom Read: 

Both. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Jam before cream or cream before jam on a scone? 

 

Tom Read: 

Oh, well, my mum lives in Devon, so I'm going to get this the wrong way around and she'll be very upset. But jam and then cream.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Ooh, that's the Cornish way. 

 

Tom Read: 

Damnit. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Early bird or night owl?

 

Tom Read: 

I'm a night owl. I'm not good at morning's.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Morning coffee or gin o'clock?

 

Tom Read: 

[laughs] Both! That's healthy isn’t it?

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

We've been stalking your Twitter feed. [laugh from Tom]

 

Planes, trains or automobiles? 

 

Tom Read: 

Well, I'll get in trouble with climate folk won’t I? Look, I really care about it. It's...I really miss travelling. I really miss travelling. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

You're allowed to say cycling, walking, canoeing. 

 

Tom Read: 

Yeah, a bit of that. Bit of, I don't really canoe. I really miss travelling on-on planes. I do live near a flight path and I'm quite enjoying not having planes going over. So I'm a hypocrite like everyone else. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Totally understandable. And this is quick fire isn't it. 

 

So Batman or Superman? 

 

Tom Read: 

Sup--Batman. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

All right. All about the journey or the destination? 

 

Tom Read: 

[laughs] I don't know! 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Too, too airy fairy for you, that's OK, no worries. 

 

What about crunchy or smooth peanut butter? 

 

Tom Read: 

I don't eat peanuts, so neither. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Allergic? 

 

Tom Read: 

No, just don't like them.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Fair enough. And finally, what do you think of the idea of an office cat? I know this one's hot on people's minds.

 

Tom Read: 

So. I'm a big fan of an office cat. I think we should have an office cat. I don't know if it's practical. We talked about an office dog when I was at MoJ with a, with a little you know, pass on its collar that was quickly squashed by our DGs [Director Generals].

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah I feel like I've put a cat among the pigeons by mentioning this. So [laughs] [laugh from Tom] there's always, there's always chatter amongst the staff, ‘Oh, can we please have an office cat?’. But unfortunately, because we share this building with other tenants, it's not been, not been an option, apparently, especially with cat allergies. I don't know how they get away with it, with Palmerston and FCDO [Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office], for instance, you know, there's probably going to be people with cat allergies. But if you can put in a word, the cat people will be very grateful. 

 

Tom Read: 

OK, here's my most political statement of this whole interview. I will look into whether we can get an office cat. I think it's a great idea. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Oh, fantastic. Well, I've run out of quickfire hard-hitting questions for you. 

 

Thank you so much, Tom, for coming on today and sharing with us what you see as GDS's new mission and how that's going to be achieved. If you want, you can listen to all the episodes at the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on Podbean. 

 

Goodbye.

 

Tom Read: 

Goodbye.

 

----------------------

Do you enjoy the GDS Podcast? Help us to make it even better by completing our short, anonymous survey.
 
 
Government Digital Service Podcast #29: Role of Product Teams in Greener Delivery

Government Digital Service Podcast #29: Role of Product Teams in Greener Delivery

April 22, 2021

Vanessa Schneider: 

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service Podcast. My name is Vanessa Schneider and I'm Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS. 

 

Today we will be talking about how product teams can play a role in greening delivery. While digital ways of working often mean moving away from paper-based processes, there's still plenty that can be done by professionals in the public sector to contribute to environmentally sustainable practice. The government has recognised the role it can play and set out its ambition in the 2011 Greening Government ICT Strategy. The strategy provides a vision for a sustainable digital delivery and ways of working.

 

Last year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is also known as DEFRA, published the newest iteration of the strategy covering the government's approach until 2025. In it DEFRA identified opportunities across the government estate to deliver energy-saving benefits, for instance, in server utilisation and software design, or to include sustainability criteria in procurement. 

 

In today's episode, on Earth Day, we'll explore this important issue and hear from colleagues who are taking steps to make their delivery more green. Joining me now are Adam Turner and Emily Labram. Thank you both for being here today. Would you mind introducing yourself and what you do to our listeners? Let's start with Adam. 

 

Adam Turner: 

Hi, everyone. Yeah, Adam Turner. I work for DEFRA. And for my sins, I am in charge of sustainable ICT across all government departments. So to, to make that happen, basically I-I-I write the strategy and I chair the cross-government group. So manage the governance to make this kind of stuff happen and help and advise departments on delivering all that goodness.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Brilliant. Thank you, Adam. Emily, how about you?

 

Emily Labram: 

Hi everyone, I'm Emily Labram. I'm a Lead Product Manager at the Government Digital Service. Right now I'm working in digital identity, which means I'm helping make it easier for users to access government services online. And previously I worked in the world of infrastructure at GDS, so I got very interested in how sustainably we were hosting our services. And that's where I also met Adam and worked with him on improving the sustainability of our hosting.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Perfect, thank you. 

 

So Adam, at the top of the episode, I shared a bit of information about the Greening Government ICT Strategy, but would you mind giving the listeners an explanation that's not quite so amateur?

 

Adam Turner: 

[laughs] Not amateur at all, Vanessa. Yes, so the tagline for the strategy for the new one that we published in September 2020 for the next five years is: responsible and resilience. I don't actually use the word sustainable or green in the title at all, but basically what I'm trying to say through the strategy, what we are trying to say, is that all our ICT is is delivering goodness. It's part of the solution to the climate crisis and not part of the problem. 

 

So within that, we have broken it down really into 3 key areas. So this is around firstly net zero ambitions, obviously tied into government ambitions for net zero by 2050. So it's linking your ICT sustainability targets with your departmental or organisational sustainability targets.

 

The second one is around circular. So everything around what we would used to have called waste, but now we more commonly talk about resources. Because if you're using less of the world's resources and you're using, for example, remanufactured ICT and you're taking ownership of that stuff potentially at end-of-life and thinking about where it goes, then you've got more control over the system.

 

And then the third one is around that kind of social aspect. And, yes, much of this is in the procurement space. But there's also a need to understand this from a design perspective as well. The Prime Minister set out a statement on modern slavery last year that highlighted ICT as a high-risk area. So we need to make sure we're squeaky clean in that area. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That definitely brings it much more to life. Your [laughs] examples seem much more practical than sort of the high-level stuff that I mentioned, so thank you for that. 

 

Yeah. So, Emily, as a Lead Product Manager I believe you are, and an advocate for sustainability, I was wondering where you see the opportunities to improve sustainability in your area of practice.

 

Emily Labram: 

Yeah, so a couple of years ago, I started to wonder what the role of Product Managers and digital teams was in bringing down our emissions in line with our net zero targets. And I realised that actually getting a working knowledge of where emissions actually are when it comes to building and running digital services was the first step.

 

I realised that because services are called digital [laughs], and because they're hosted in 'the cloud', that it's quite common for Product Managers, especially people like me who didn't have a technical background, misunderstood that digital services and the cloud are something almost immaterial. That was the first shift that I made when I started realising that actually [laughs] to host a service, keep it up and running, involves these vast data centres. They are very real, they are very material, and they are kept running by electricity and water [laughs]. Electricity which you know could be produced in any number of ways, some of which could be by burning fossil fuels. And all of that was something of a kind of revelation [laughs] for me a couple of years ago. 

 

And I do think that that started to get complex pretty quick [laughs]. But just to get started by thinking, all right, let's get a working knowledge of the sorts of emissions that my job actually produces was a good first step.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Oh ok, interesting. We actually spoke with Mohamed Hamid, or Mo, from the Chief Digital Information Office in Cabinet Office, and he has some more insight into server space and the impact it can have on the environment."

 

[VOX POP STARTS]

 

Mo Hamid: 

So my name is Mohamed and I'm a Lead Infrastructure Engineer at the Cabinet Office. What that means is I look after the connectivity and the backend of infrastructure that supports the services that we offer to our users. So for us and for me, our users are, are the Cabinet Office staff that consume and use laptops, IT infrastructure, wireless connectivity, internet, access to the internet from offices and then things like-like the VPN, for example. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Great, so we're discussing how to green delivery in different parts of ICT within government, so I was wondering where can it go wrong - is there something such as "overengineering" in your line of work perhaps?

 

Mo Hamid:

That's a great question...for me you know, just over-engineering: it is possible. In today's world, there's a big drive to move things to the cloud. So traditionally you'd have your data centres on sites in the office somewhere and you'd have a server room and that's where you would host things like email or applications. But however, there's a big trend to moving offsite to the cloud. And often what I find, and from experience is: the, you know, looking at it from a green environmental perspective is often not thought about and the reasons for that is varying. But one of the reasons would be that isn't really thought of with the requirements. There's all--the requirement seems to be, 'yep, we need to shift, lift and shift, migrate into the cloud'.  

 

‘Do I just simply migrate all the servers and create virtual machines in the cloud in the very same way as I would do in a physical server room?’ No, you wouldn't do that. You would make use of the cloud tools that are out there and and finding out you know, how do I make use of those tools to better serve the users and the environment.  

 

So to delve even further, what that means is: so in the traditional server room, you might, you might have a lot of servers running and some storage behind that, and that all requires power, and that's all producing CO2 gases, somewhere in the lifecycle there. You, you, you don't need to just have servers running all the time in the cloud. You can only have it running at a minimum level. And then when demand increases, for example, you can then spin up more servers. So this is, we're talking about scaling here. Do I need five servers running 24/7, you know, 30 days of the month all the time? Probably not. You probably, you know, at night time, your demand may decrease.  

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Having flexibility in a contract so that you can scale up and down is quite handy. Is there any other sort of best practice advice that you have to pass on to anybody else who might be working in infrastructure engineering and is listening to the episode?  

 

Mo Hamid: 

Yeah, sure. I mean, I mean, I don't think I can cover everything, but I think one of the things you need to look out for - and it's best to do this from early on - is to not use tools that will get you locked in to one particular cloud provider. Perhaps in the future you may want to migrate from cloud provider A or to cloud provider B, or you may want to host in A and B together simultaneously. So being locked in one isn't a good thing because you-you-you might have other players in the future, or we might have a player that are more, more, are more green.

 

Number two, when you're designing your your IT, or your infrastructure, whatever you're looking to-to provide, security I think also plays a part. Not just because you want to protect your-your services obviously, but also from-from your services being used for other malicious things. 

 

So I had a friend who was running a couple of servers in-in the cloud infrastructure, and then one day he realised that one of his servers was running at 100% CPU consistently all the time. So he logged in and checked you know, what's going on here, had a fiddle around, looked throughout, looked through his server environment and then realised his server was being used for bitmining. So, you know, cryptocurrency, finding the next Bitcoin and his server had been compromised, there was some malicious scripts running. And therefore it was running at full CP, 100% CPU. Imagine that at scale. And then that again is bad for the environment. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That is fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing all of these like pieces of information from a world that's so different to what I'm used to. I was wondering if there is anything final that you could think of which relates infrastructure engineering to sustainability yet mentioned?

 

Mo Hamid: 

Yeah, I mean, a final thought for me is probably on a more personal level, I think everyone can probably follow this is: things like clearing out clutter in our emails. And I'm, I'm, I'll put my hands up first for this - I'm, I'm the worst at this. I think I've got about 10,000 emails in my personal inbox. So clearing the up helps because you're, you're, that doesn't need to be stored anymore and because it doesn't need to be stored anymore, eventually down the line that will get deleted. And think of you know, zoom out a bit, in the, that data centre thats running that email server will have it deleted and have more storage space freed up. And then that, if we all do that, there's less storage space needed. So these are little things that we can do. So clear up your emails if you can.

 

[VOX POP ENDS]

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So that was Mo. I was wondering, is there anything that you particularly connected with what he was saying or is there anything that you found particularly noteworthy that you'd like to explore?

 

Adam Turner: 

Well, first of all, go Mo. That was [laughs] that was awesome. It's really heartening for someone like me who's been working in this for over a decade to hear someone talking so passionately and eloquently and usefully about this topic. So fantastic.

 

I'll just pick up on a few of his points. Absolutely, sustainability's a non-functional requirement. People forget this. It should be thought of in the same way as accessibility, availability, security, safety. All of those are-are the same, and you need to think them at the beginning. The challenge is in infrastructure is that industry will be saying we're getting greener by default.

 

Across government, we've got this thing called Crown Hosting, who are super efficient, and in terms of energy efficiency and green energy and the way that they run things. So y-you move there and it's going to get greener. But the, but the reality is in lots of ways--well there's few things [laughs] going on.

 

Firstly, we forget to turn off the old stuff. So that carries on running. Because of complications, because it's often not as simple as you've just got a single service sitting on a single set of servers right? So you turn off bits of it, but you've got to leave all the rest of it going. You just lift and shift your-your stuff and you carry across those requirements. And, you know, as again as Mo was saying, you-you don't need to be running this stuff 24/7 in the cloud. You only, you only need to spin it up when you actually need it.

 

But to do this takes a bit more work. You need that sustainability thinking in there as a non-functional requirement with some expertise right at the beginning of any projects and programme when you're looking at the infrastructure, when you're making the choices so that you know that you go to the right place, you don't end up with that vendor lock in, you-you are controlling the service that you are consuming in the same way that you're managing the costs, you are tracking your use of carbon, and you're getting that data back from those service providers. Because we all need this as increasingly the world will be looking on digital to prove that it's providing a net gain, and not--as I say not being part of the problem.  

 

The-the bit about bit [Bitcoin] mining was-was fascinating. That's--it's a really good classic example of an you know, unintended consequence [laughs] of digital being this huge, huge energy consumption, which is currently estimated to be on par with the consumption of Argentina. So it-it's absolutely incredible and currently unmanaged. 

 

Emily Labram: 

Yeah, I totally agree with-with all of that, and yeah go Mo! [laughs]. And Mo reminds me of several very conscientious Engineers that I've worked with in the past. And it's been a process as a Product Manager to learn the role that every member of the team actually plays in simplifying the services that we build on a continual basis, rather than just going super fast and optimising to deliver the features that you know, are user-facing.

 

So to Adam's point about the non-functional side: reliability, security, sustainability, all of that, it needs to be made, time needs to be made for it. As a Product Manager, I've learnt [laughs], I've learnt to understand that actually I do need to be managing and tracking things like infrastructure cost at the same time as all the other perhaps more shiny user facing metrics that I might otherwise be tracking. So something I've learnt as a Product Manager is to track those as what I might call what we call health metrics. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

It's great to hear reliability standing out to you folks so much, ‘cause it feels like that coincides with our next clip, where I'm talking to Matthew Hobbs, or Matt, who’s a front-end developer working on GOV.UK. So my understanding of this area is pretty rudimentary but from what I know front end is pretty important in providing that reliability of services - but clearly there's also scope for sustainability!

 

[VOX POP STARTS]

 

Matt Hobbs: 

Sure, my name is Matthew Hobbs or Matt Hobbs, I'm the Head of Frontend and a Lead Frontend Developer at the Government Digital Service. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So for someone who doesn't know, like myself, what front-end is, can you please first explain what falls under front-end, and then, because I'm not [laughs] asking enough of you, how can it be used to support our ambitions of becoming more environmentally sustainable?

 

Matt Hobbs: 

That's a big question. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

It's a big one. 

 

Matt Hobbs:

It's a big question, yeah.

 

So essentially, a lot of the computation that happens in a user's browser happens within the frontend essentially. So what you see as a person coming to our website that is essentially the frontend - the pixels being drawn to a screen - is the frontend code essentially. So there's a lot of computational power that goes into that. So by optimising the frontend, you can actually make things better from a-an environmental point of view and from a performance point of view and from a user interaction point of view as well. So that's essentially where fron-frontend comes into this piece of the puzzle. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So do you have a practical example where you have perhaps optimised the code in order to improve the performance and make it more sustainable when it comes to website content?  

 

Matt Hobbs: 

Yes, so probably the, the one that I always go back to is, is from around about 2018, 2017-2018, where we were delivering our fonts for GOV.UK in a very specific way. It was quite an old school way of delivering fonts that was actually making it heavier, as in the page weight heavier for users. And we reworked how they were delivered to users, or delivered to browsers. And therefore it sort of streamlined the experience and actually cut down the amount of data that was actually being used on the frontend. And it, overall, it should have improved the experience for-for the vast majority of users. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So I was wondering on that front, does it matter what kind of equipment the user has when it comes to how you code it? Or should the code work for anything, whether I've got an old Nokia phone or the newest iPhone? 

 

Matt Hobbs: 

So where, how we approach frontend development at GDS is using a methodology called progressive enhancement. So essentially we build the lowest minimum viable product first and then layer on additional features as they as, as you work through it. So if, if you're using a modern browser and it supports modern features, it will get a more modern experience. Whereas if you are on an old, old browser on an old device, they will, users with these devices will receive an experience that works, but it won't be all the bells and whistles essentially. 

 

As you are on more modern hardware and you are on a more modern browser, it's able to cope with that. Whereas if you are on an old device or an older browser, there's the assumption that the actual hardware involved in the device won't be able to cope with that additional code. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Brilliant. So if we have anybody who is a frontend developer listening, is there any way that they can access this kind of best practice?

 

Matt Hobbs: 

Yes, we have, we have some guidance in the service manual and we also have some guidance in the GDS way as well.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So if they’re working on their own and are faced with a huge project, do you have any words of advice or motivation? 

 

Matt Hobbs: 

Well, yeah, I mean, the, and as you would say around improving accessibility for a website, the it's important to realise that it doesn't always need to be solved at once as long as you are improving it a little bit every day. And it's better than it was the day before. That's essentially the best you can do. And that's essentially how you should look at web performance optimisation as well as the sustainability aspects is: have I improved it today? Yes. Then we're going in the right direction.

 

[VOX POP ENDS]

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Right, that was Matt.

 

Emily Labram: 

Yeah, I love what Matt said, and I always, I've discovered how important Frontend Developers and Designers are in the effort to reduce complexity, to reduce cost emissions and also the beautiful like win-wins that Matt was talking about.

 

So I love the fact that in improving performance that Matt would also be making it possible for users who have older phones to carry on having a good experience, which means they don't have to throw their old phones away, which is something that I with my old brick really [laughs] appreciate, and also makes a service more equitable, inclusive. Which is something that, because we're in government, we have to care about making things work for everyone, making things accessible for everyone. And it's also something that makes working government super exciting because we get to care about this. So, yeah. Thanks, Matt. Very cool.  

 

Adam Turner: 

Yeah, e-equally loved what Matt said. The-the things, we've talked largely about greening ICT so far, but, but what Matt's picking up on there is that sustainability is about all three pillars - you know, it, it's social and environmental, and about cost savings as well. And, and those three things in balance.

 

So if you're making a service, if you're designing service, making a webpage as easy to use as possible, and as Emily said, you can still work on a Nokia 3310 - although that wouldn't actually be possible, would it? But I think that's really, really important because those end users have a better experience: it's quicker, it's slicker.

 

And often to remember from a sustainability point of view, often in-in terms of government services especially, we're replacing older sort of paper-based systems or manual systems, which, which of course has that saving as well. So you want something that works crisply and cleanly and, and it needs to be simple.

 

And obviously the-the more simple it is and easy to use, the happier the-the end user is and who ends up using less energy. And you've got happier people and they've saved time and the whole thing's costing you less to run, and it all fits together really nicely. But it's a massive growing area that isn't really appreciated yet. And if you spend a bit more time, a-a bit of thought into what you're delivering, you're going to end up something that's going to keep everyone happier and, you know, will run more efficiently and cost you less. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So there's definitely something about taking your time and getting it right the first time to make it last - so the way Matt was talking about progressive enhancement, it's nice to know that you know, nobody will have to go back to the code and redo it from scratch as innovations come and go, like it’s, it's built up in a simple way, a bit different from the way that teams will occasionally accumulate tech debt because there are urgent deliverables.

 

Emily Labram: 

Yeah, I love that too. And as I've got more senior as a Product Manager, I do see now that my role as a Lead Product Manager is to push back sometimes and to create space for teams so that they do have the time, they have the time and the freedom to do things in the right way, to do that hard work that we always talk about at GDS to kind of make things simple for users. 

 

And...it's really a delivery thing as much as it is a product thing, but it's about the way that we work: and the, it's iterative, we use the Agile approach and that that means that we do reduce waste because we test early and often, we find out what works from the riskiest first. And that means we can deliver little bits of value early and often continuously, and that we waste less. So that's a kind of key, key part of how, as digital people, we, we help in the effort to kind of reduce emissions. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, it, it kind of reminds me of the reuse, reduce, recycle mantra actually. 

 

Adam Turner: 

Yeah, there's an awful lot of research out there from, from universities showing now that, you know, that kind of law of ever increasing performance of things and increasing capacity - is it Moore's Law? Can never quite remember. But yes, the, basically you can go, you can use refurbished servers and they are performing, or even outperforming new servers. And obviously, if you're buying refurbished kits, that stuff hasn't been dug out of the ground, sort of virgin resources, you're re-utilising as well. So embedding that kind of circular thinking into your hosting et cetera, it, you know the, the pace of development is not something that's scary anymore. It's quite fine to use a more sustainable alternative. 

 

Emily Labram: 

On that point about circularity as well, I also wanted to recognise Product Manager's role to, to sometimes notice that we can retire things, whether that's even just a feature that no one's really using or whether it's an entire product or service and then, and continually retiring things from small to big as well as continually building that circularity also helps, I think, to kind of minimise the amount of energy that we are using to keep the stuff that we have up and running.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, yeah, definitely good points. I know that we've been talking sort of about the physical quite a lot. But actually the thing that the user most interacts with when it comes to government services is the written word - so we have the good fortune [laughs] of one of GDS's content writers sharing their perspective with us.

 

[VOX POP STARTS]

 

Rosa Ryou: 

Hello, my name is Rosa and I'm a Content Designer with the GOV.UK Accessibility Team. But what that means is I help other Content Designers make sure that everything on GOV.UK is as accessible as possible to everyone who visits GOV.UK. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Brilliant. So it's like guidance, attachments like PDF or HTML preferably, of course. And I think would, would easy reads fall into content as well?

 

Rosa Ryou: 

Easy read does fall into content. And that is to do with accessibility. So there, there is some guidance on that. But it can also be simple things like heading structures and using images and how to make that accessible, how to make your videos accessible. And all those little things also help save the environment as well, because it means people will spend less time looking, looking at things.

 

We do follow a style guide. So that there is consistency in how any piece of content is-is presented to our users. All our content is about making it easier for for people to find the information they need or to complete a transaction that they need to do to get on with their lives.

 

A good piece of, good content design is almost something that you don't actually notice. It's just there. And next thing you know, you're like, 'Oh, I know the information that I was looking for' or 'oh wow, I've just applied for a new passport. Didn't even know that was going to be that simple' kind of thing. So in that respect, you-you're making your users save a lot of time on whether it be their desktop, on mobile. And I think that has to be good for the environment because they're spending less time. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Definitely, yeah, I think there's so much that content design can influence on the user end of things with reducing their electric consumption. Another thing that I was thinking of that falls into content design is also sort of the-the guidance that you give on use of images, for instance, or trying to apply plain English, is that right?

 

Rosa Ryou: 

Yeah, yeah, that is very right. I mean with images, we are very clear that you really shouldn't be using images for decorative reasons. And I think you will, you'll probably have noticed that a lot of the times people like to have an image on a page just because that's what they're used to doing it. But if it adds absolutely no value to the content, then there's no need for you to add an image.

 

But of course, there will be instances where you may need to have an image: for example, if you're showing graphs or charts. But even then, we make sure that it's not, it's not a massive file size so that it takes a long time to upload or anything like that. And but we also make sure that any image used in GOV.UK that there is enough description within the text so that if you don't have the image, you'll still be able to understand the whole content. 

 

It's a bit like, it's a bit opposite to your university days actually. You know how you-you have a word limit for your essays [laugh from Vanessa] and you write 100 words and you're thinking, well, how can I make this like 500? I think in content design you start with 100 words and you end up with 20 words. 

 

[VOX POP ENDS]

 

Emily Labram: 

Oh Rosa's so brilliant. Yeah, well, that was all about the beauty of doing away with anything unnecessary and getting to something incredibly simple. And I think it just speaks to the role that every single person on a team, in fact, every single person in the organisation actually has in cutting away that kind of cruft, that waste and getting to the simplest process or the simplest experience for users. And in that process, getting rid of unnecessary electricity usage, waste, et cetera, and therefore emissions.

 

Adam Turner: 

Yes, I-I loved what Rosa was talking about. I've-I've fallen foul of-of these guidelines, I must admit, so I've learnt things the hard way, despite working in sustainability for as long as I have developing strategies and, and reports that I've laboured over, created fantastic diagrams only to have the GOV.UK style team say: 'really? [laughs] Do you need that? And what it makes you realise is yeah, actually a lot of it is just fluff. So you just read the facts and boil it right down. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I think one of the things that makes me really excited about Rosa's contribution is also a lot of the time people maybe get told that, you know, words don't really necessarily have the same impact. But in this case, the words are making the impact, you know, by thinking about how you phrase things, thinking about being able to be more concise or making things easier to understand. It then means people are spending less time on the page. They're able to go-get ahead with what they're doing much faster. And that that has that, that effect that people are essentially using less electricity and contributing less to emissions. So, yeah, I don't know, I just sort of like that cheesy thought of the pen is mightier than the sword. 

 

Adam Turner: 

Hey, it's, it's not cheesy at all. Like I say, I had to learn this the hard way. It's so easy when you're designing a-a website or creating a document or a, content or whatever to say refer to diagram, you know, reference image one or something. But you're not actually explaining it. And it really makes you sit down and think about what it is that you're trying to get across. And there's some really, really great people across the content teams across government that have, that have got this nailed in, in how to make this simple and effective. And you're right, it takes up less space, got less servers running in the background, and people can access the information quicker and more efficiently. And that has to be a good thing.  

 

Emily Labram: 

Also on that, it's about getting the right trade offs, I think is what you know, the-the great skill that the Content Designers have is that they're able to, to get to that 20 words, but those 20 words are actually the right ones and they get across exactly what's needed, even though there's hardly any words there at all. I think what you're pointing out, Adam, is these trade offs are quite painful sometimes. You-you might have invested loads of time in-in kind of perhaps it's a particular feature or it's a piece of content or it's a you know, a user journey and, and then having those brave, difficult conversations to kind of challenge and go: actually, do we need all of that? How does that actually work in user research in practice, and being ready to sort of kill off stuff that isn't working.

 

I think that's why you need highly skilled people in these disciplines in order to help make the best possible trade offs between you know, for example, the amount of bandwidth that the NHS service is using for video and the amount of usefulness of that video to users and getting the amount of bandwidth for the, the exact decision right, and, or iterating those over time.

 

Adam Turner: 

So I'd like to make a couple of little plugs, if I may. Firstly, the, the strategy that we mentioned right at the beginning Vanessa, mentions the idea of a responsible digital citizen. And the idea behind that was me trying to get across - and I've been engaging with the DDaT profession across government to try and make this happen - is that every single role across the Digital, Data and Technology profession across government recognises that they need to think about everything through the sustainability lens. And I think personally that's really important. And I think what we've heard today is even in the most unlikely places, like how, how we put things on a webpage and you know, how we think about the phrasing of those words to replace a picture, and actually that's going to be better, is, is having a huge sustainability benefit. 

 

So the other quick plug I'd like to mention is the professional body of IEMA, Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, and their basic drive is that everybody in every profession should think about sustainability. So that's just as relevant to us here in Digital and Data as it is to everyone else.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, so obviously we've heard from three colleagues and we've had Emily as well in the podcast, giving us these practical measures that maybe people who are listening who work in the digital space could apply or convince their colleagues to apply. I was wondering whether we can maybe pull back a little bit and think about sort of like what effect we're hoping this will have. And maybe that's something, again, for you, Adam, to talk about. But I know, Emily, you're quite invested in in sustainability work as well and it might be an opportunity for you to reflect on why this is important to you as well.

 

Adam Turner: 

Sure. So, as I say, the most important thing for organisations out there to, to, you've got to understand where you are at the moment. And the most effective way of doing that is to look at your current ICT footprint. So there's numerous ways you can do that. But effectively it's your asset register with a bunch of assumptions tagged to it. And then once you understand that and then you start looking at your ICT waste, you get this, this picture of where you're at. 

 

Now obviously increasingly we've been talking about the move to the cloud. And the big chunk of the work we've been involved with for the last couple of years has been working with our cloud suppliers to try and understand our footprints in the cloud. We've been working really closely with our key service providers in public cloud, private cloud and more traditional hosting to try and get to the bottom of that. Once we got all of that - and we are publishing a new report in the next couple of months - and we've got the last 10 years worth of reports up there, you can see the government footprint for our hosting.

 

All the stuff that we've been talking about today you would hope would help bring that figure down and it would get lower. And then all the other benefits in digital that kind of, that we've all experienced through COVID, you know, all that reticence that was out there for using tools like Zoom, with cultures that told people that they had to go to offices, they had to commute - suddenly that's all up in the air.

 

And you can see all of the savings across, carbon savings from travel, from hopefully flights - we'll see where that one goes - from...well, other areas as well. And y-you can see all those coming down and they've been enabled through digital. But we don't want digital to keep rising up. Data growth is rising exponentially. But the hosting of that is not rising exponentially because we are managing to green the grid and operators are greening.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Great, thank you, Adam. Yeah, Emily, any personal reflections regarding why, why you want to have this positive impact on environmental sustainability?

 

Emily Labram: 

I think what motivates me is to know that I am doing, doing my bit in my role, that I know how my role connects to the commitments that we've made as a nation. And that's taken two forms now. 

 

First thing is hampioning the commitments that we have made and making sure that as an organisation, that we are tracking, we are managing our emissions in the same way as we manage the other things that we care about. And so I have pointed to Adam's work and pointed to the tools that are available and asked questions at the relevant moments. [Laughs] And we've made some good progress there.

 

But the other thing I think I've realised is that it's about really focussing on what I can do within my craft and within my role and how I can become a more deep expert on what it means to do Product Management in a sustainable way, what it means to lead Product Teams and enable them to do, to build products in sustainable ways. And that's where my effort and my interest is now.

 

Adam Turner: 

I think it's important to recognise where IT and digital has moved from. And it's moved into the centre of organisations and therefore vital to deliver their corporate agenda and their commitments. So whatever organisation is out there, it-it, it's unfeasible to say that you, you can deliver the objectives of your organisation and your commitments whoever you are, whether your sustainability organisation or not, you can't do it without digital and tech.

 

But I think it's very important to know that we're, we're at the beginning of this journey in recognising how everyone can get involved. And it's great, the, the momentum’s there. Everyone's really passionate about this. Everyone's recognising that they need to cut down on their flights. Think about, you know, the meat they consume. Think about where their energy is being sourced. And slowly but surely, we're waking up to the role of digital and tech in that. And as we learn more about this, we as a profession can share expertise. And it's been wonderful to hear all of these examples today. And get this as part of training for everyone and share best practices and really start to create the momentum to push this forward.

 

Emily Labram: 

I was going to recommend Designing for Sustainability by Tim Frick. And I would say if there's any digital folk listening who want to just start to get a more, a general understanding of where emissions are and how they can be managed and reduced in digital team, that's the book that's helped me out the most.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Gosh, it's so exciting [laughs] hearing you respond so positively to what's already happening in government. I know it's Earth Day, which of course will be a reminder to many to think about the impact their actions have, but much more encouraging that even when it's not Earth Day, these efforts are underway here.

 

So on such a positive note, I want to say thank you so much to all of our guests for coming on today and sharing all this best practice and giving us motivation, hope, advice to do our best when it comes to greening in government, especially in the digital space. So you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on PodBean. Goodbye. 

 

Adam Turner: 

Bye. Thank you.

 

Emily Labram: 

Bye everyone. 

Government Digital Service Podcast #28: Demystifying GOV.UK PaaS

Government Digital Service Podcast #28: Demystifying GOV.UK PaaS

March 31, 2021

Vanessa Schneider: 

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service Podcast. My name is Vanessa Schneider and I am Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS. Today we will be talking about GOV.UK Platform as a Service. GDS has a reputation for creating best in class digital products and services for government, and GOV.UK Platform as a Service - or GOV.UK PaaS for short - is one of them. 

 

GOV.UK PaaS helps public sector organisations to secure and swiftly host their digital services without worrying about infrastructure. It’s currently used by 131 organisations, runs 1,652 applications and recently celebrated passing its live service assessment, providing a joined-up experience across channels. 

 

Joining me are Clare Barnett and Mark Buckley. Thank you for being here. Would you mind introducing yourselves to the listeners?

 

Clare Barnett: 

Yeah. Hi, everyone, I'm Clare. I'm a Senior Researcher on GOV.UK PaaS. And my role involves spending most of my time with users of GOV.UK PaaS, understanding what they need from our platform, understanding how current features work and what we can do to improve them, and also understanding how we might need to develop the product in the future to help meet needs that we're not currently catering for. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Great, thanks, Clare. Mark?

 

Mark Buckley: 

Hiya, I'm Mark Buckley, I'm Product Manager on GOV.UK PaaS. And that means that a lot of the user needs and things that Clare identifies and other folks on the team, I help to prioritise in order to iterate and hopefully make that product better. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Great. So both of you mentioned GOV.UK PaaS and I also gave an introduction at the top of the episode but I’m sure [laughs] our listeners would value hearing from an expert what GOV.UK PaaS actually is. 

 

Mark Buckley: 

So GOV.UK Platform as a Service - or as we abbreviate it to PaaS as it's quite the mouthful - is a cloud hosting platform essentially, where service teams around government and public sector can use us to host their applications and digital services in the cloud. So whether that's a service living on GOV.UK like the Teaching Service or a simple informational website such as technical documentation or something like that, they can host their app, those applications on our platform.

 

The platform side of it, and is doing this sort of hard work of connecting and running the infrastructure that underpins the World Wide Web. So is akin to the plumbing in a house. So, yeah, we take care of that so the service teams don't have to. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Great, thanks Mark. 

 

Clare, as a user researcher, can you tell us why should people use PaaS? Does that come up maybe in your work? 

 

Clare Barnett: 

Yeah, it absolutely does. And, you know, I'm talking close all the time and I'm always hearing: one of the things that we hear is how we can improve the product. But we're always hearing the good stuff as well and why people use us. And I mean, essentially PaaS is there to help teams avoid unnecessary overheads.

 

So it means that they don't have to run the infrastructure themselves and they don't need to have Web Ops capability in-house, which means they can focus their time and budget on running their service. And what we hear from our users is that using GOV.UK PaaS, it means that they can avoid procurement blockers, it's much easier to-to use us than it is other commercial services because they don't have to go through long procurement processes.

 

We also offer a great developer experience, which we've spent a lot of time developing and improving over the years. And we're trusted - we hear from a lot of users that the fact that PaaS is developed by the public sector for the public sector is a really good thing for our users. It helps avoid lock-in with expensive suppliers and it feels much more collaborative as well. And overall, we're offering teams much better value for money than, than some of the commercial providers out there.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you ever have people coming in thinking they know what PaaS is and you've got to clear up a couple of misconceptions? 

 

Clare Barnett: 

I mean, I think we have people who maybe think they can use PaaS in a slightly different way to the way that they, they do. But I mean, I would say some of the common misconceptions are that: it's only for developers. And actually that's not true at all. We do have a number of designers using GOV.UK PaaS to host their prototypes. So yes, we-we do have some misconceptions, but we're able to clear those up quite easily. 

 

Mark Buckley:

Yeah, I-I suppose more often than not, we get misconceptions the other way, as in they don't know what PaaS is or aren't clear on sort of the benefits or the purpose for us.

 

A lot of teams we hear from: 'oh, well, it's only for, available for central government. It's made for central government by central government'. But that's not the case. We've done a lot of work over the years in opening up those contracts and focussing on the-the needs of not just central government, but the wider public sector. So we have teams and services from the devolved administrations, Northern Ireland Assembly use like pretty extensively, local authorities use us, NHS use us, College of Policing use us there - so we have representation from right across the public sector.

 

And I suppose another kind of misconception   is that GOV.UK PaaS is only suitable for very simple services, such as, as I mentioned earlier, sort of a static website or something like that. But again, that's not true. We have quite we're a, we're a very flexible and powerful platform actually. And some of the services that folks might know: so the Document Checking Service is running on GOV.UK PaaS and GOV.UK Notify, which is, over, certainly over COVID, has become pretty much the UK's notification platform that also runs on GOV.UK PaaS. So we-we have the kind of full spectrum of services living quite happily and running reliably on GOV.UK PaaS.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I imagine that listeners know maybe of the word cloud, cloud hosting - because we do have a sizeable audience in the Digital, Data and Technology space. I'm sure they also know that there's commercial providers in this instance. So what motivated government to create this tool rather than just relying on external providers?

 

Mark Buckley: 

GOV.UK PaaS, yeah, is not the only Platform as a Service offering or cloud hosting offering that is available to public sector. Indeed, there is a somewhat confusing overlap with G-Cloud where you could procure different types of cloud hosting provider potentially. But we as a GOV.UK PaaS is a Platform as a Service which when it comes to cloud hosting and that type of thing, is different from Infrastructure as a Service, which is generally what private sector infrastructure providers would provide. 

 

And if services or teams decide to use that, they will have to stitch together and do all of that kind of plumbing themselves because there's sort of more raw materials. And in-in doing that, will have to hire and recruit significant web operations capability. Because we are a platform, we've done all that, built it once with the needs of government at its heart. So to-to fit with the-the kind of M.O. of the rest of the government as a platform products. So GOV.UK Notify, GOV.UK Pay and our ourselves: we built it once so that it can be reused and across the public sector, so that there isn't that same duplication of effort. And cloud infrastructure and hosting is not a simple kind of area and takes a lot of investment. So it's, you know, the, that we've provided or invested a lot in that is beneficial hopefully to other service teams.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, definitely build once, use many, it's a favourite phrase in-in our organisation. 

 

Right. So obviously, you are working on the product itself. I was wondering if you maybe in user research, hear about the kind of challenges people have been able to overcome thanks to GOV.UK PaaS or whether you've got a particular case that you'd consider a success story.

 

Clare Barnett: 

Yeah. So we-we hear a lot of the time that teams are able to move a lot faster when they are using GOV.UK PaaS. So they're able to deploy faster. Just generally it kind of helps their internal processes. We take away a lot of the work that otherwise they might have to do themselves. 

 

So some research that we did recently around users evaluating PaaS for use. One user actually said to us: ‘largely all of the effort is offloaded onto ourselves’. So they see the value for money in that the-the service doesn't really feel like very expensive at all. You know we're taking away a lot of the work that-that users would actually have to do in their teams, that's being placed on us.

 

On top of that, the support that we offer is really comprehensive. So whereas if a team was using a commercial competitor of ours, they might be paying quite hefty sums to have a support model in place. With GOV.UK PaaS, they get all of that included and they get access to 24/7 support. So it-it really is-it's the speed at which people are able to operate and the fact that they can reduce their team size, they don't have to have web ops capability. And the fact that overall that these things combine to help them save money and get bet-better value for money in the long term.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

If someone is curious to find out more, maybe take their own time and to look at information, where can they go?

 

Clare Barnett:

Yeah, so if you'd like to find out more about PaaS and how it works, then you can go to our website, which is cloud.service.gov.uk for more information. If you're already using PaaS, then you can contact our support channel, and again, if you go to cloud.service.gov.uk, you'll see a support thing in the top right hand corner of the page. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So obviously we've heard brilliant things about PaaS now, but don’t just trust us seeing as we are the organisation [laughs] that developed GOV.UK PaaS. We’ve actually chatted with some tenants. So first off we will be hearing from Himal Mandalia. 

 

[VOX POP STARTS]

Himal Mandalia: 

Hi I'm Himal. So I've joined GDS recently as Head of Technology for GOV.UK. I've been working around government digital for about the last 6 years. Working at the Ministry of Justice Digital and the Department of Education.

 

So I've just joined about a month ago, but over the last few months since last year, there's been some experimentation running, some trials around GOV.UK Accounts.

 

As part of the trial, the first step was to-to offer an account along with the Brexit Transition Checker. So as a user, as a citizen, you-you go through a journey, you get to some answers that you might want, but then you may want personalised notifications when some of that content changes and you may want a return journey, you may want to come back and, and see, see what you selected previously.

 

Now, that's not being hosted along with the sort of main GOV.UK stack. GOV.UK is quite a large, complex service made up of many, many applications which are hosted on an infrastructure platform that's fairly manually set up and we are shifting over to something that will meet our evolving and quite sophisticated needs.

 

But for the experiment particularly the-the Accounts prototype - GOV.UK PaaS was the obvious thing to use for that. You know, just get it in there. You can deploy to it easily. You can tear it down. You can spin up additional things. And, you know, in my role as Head of Technology, I'm quite comfortable with advocating PaaS for any additional things like that. And as we, as we, as we go about re-platforming a lot of those components for GOV.UK, I definitely want to keep PaaS on the table as an option for some of those services that are very modular, that can just be, be stood up and, and then run very easily. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you mind sharing what you think the advantage is of hosting on GOV.UK PaaS versus other solutions?

 

Himal Mandalia: 

What things don't you want to have to worry about? What things are just, you know, what's termed the undifferentiated heavy lifting. It's really the same for many of these use cases, and you just want it to happen magically. You don't want to have to think about it. You don't want anyone doing it. And a lot of that is that that site reliability engineering, the the infrastructure engineering required to create the environment in which your application lives. And you and this is where, this is where PaaS comes in because that's all set up for you. A developer can just issue a few commands and create an environment, and launch the app. 

 

I was describing this to some non-technical stakeholders and leadership in DfE a year or 2 ago, there was some confusion around, you know, why would we want PaaS when we have a cloud platform already? And I said, well, it's like having access to a-a really, really high quality construction site. So you've got your space to-to build your roads and your houses and you've got these amazing construction tools, but you need a level of specialism. You need actual-actual architects. You need people that can lay, can lay the electricity, wires under the road. You need to do a lot of stuff to build a few houses, but you have complete control in how you set, in how you set that up.

 

PaaS is much more like moving into a, moving, moving into a flat that's just ready, and all you need to do is worry about the furnishings, what you're going to put in there. And that was a very sort of loose sort of metaphor that I kept sort of pushing the boundaries on, and it broke a few times. But it's, it's, it's pretty much that: it's that, it's that thing, your application just needs somewhere to live. You just want to take care of that furnishing layer of it, not have to worry about the wiring up the walls for any electrics. 

 

You know, organisationally you need a range of options. You do need the very low level infrastructure offering for-for the things that are very differentiated. And you need to have a very customised infrastructure build. But you also need those things that remove all of that heavy lifting and just let teams put apps out there.

 

And I think I've encountered in some places a very one dimensional view of what cloud means. It's, it's, it's basically a case of a one size fits all solutions, which is, which is not really the nuanced view that's needed. A nuanced view is ensuring you have the capabilities across the spectrum to handle all of your use cases. And some will be very IaaS - Infrastructure as a Service. But PaaS should definitely be there. And I think the, I think, I think the zenith of something like that is fully self-serve PaaS, which is, which is where we are with GOV.UK PaaS. It's, it's, it's great. And we just need to keep iterating it, improving it.

 

[VOX POP ENDS]

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I was wondering if anything particular stuck out to you or maybe we can discuss what it is about people working with PaaS that you all go to building and construction metaphors [laughs]?

 

Mark Buckley: 

Yeah, well, thanks to Himal for speaking so eloquently and positively about GOV.UK PaaS.

 

A couple of things sort of jumped out at me that it'd be really good to sort of reiterate. And one of those is: Himal mentioning it's not a, there's not a, it's, it's not a one-dimensional, one-size-fits-all when it comes to PaaS. There's absolutely no reason why services and departments can't use things in addition to PaaS, or as well as PaaS.

 

So Himal mentioned where there are those really sort of complex or specialised differentiated services. Then absolutely GOV.UK PaaS probably isn't the platform for-for them. But there are also vast swathes of services and applications across government that are quite typical, sort of 3-tier applications as they're kind of known in development terms. So there might be a presentation layer and a data layer and application layer all mixing together. They work really well on GOV.UK Paas, and that essentially is probably the majority of the services that run on GOV.UK, for instance, or not on GOV.UK but are part of that.

 

So if you're searching for a teacher vacancy as kind of said before or looking for your energy performance certificate at MHCLG [Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government], these are all services that run really well on GOV.UK PaaS and take that stress or drama away from Developers and Web Ops Engineers so they can concentrate on other things.

 

Clare Barnett: 

I was just going to add to that - that's something that kind of stood out for me was when Himal talked about wanting to use GOV.UK PaaS for other applications that they're looking to standup on GOV.UK as well. Because we hear that from a lot of users of the platform that once they've used it once, quite often they become advocates for GOV.UK PaaS.

 

You know they are selling it within their own organisations and wanting to use GOV.UK PaaS for as many things as they can and as many services suitable for. And basically end up with a really strong community of users who are really good at sharing with each other and, and, and sharing the patterns that they use and the way that they do things with, with other users to help them understand how they might be able to use the platform for their specific needs, which is, which is really great. And yeah, and it's nice for us to know that, you know, once someone used us once, actually they want to use us again. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, I'm, I'm really enjoying hearing all the positive news about it, and it must be really nice to have that sort of unintended consequence of people becoming these evangelists essentially and also supporting each other when it comes to the use of it.

 

So next we’ll be hearing from Colin Saliceti and his experience using GOV.UK PaaS at Department for Education. 

 

[VOX POP STARTS]

 

Colin Saliceti: 

Hi, my name is Colin Saliceti and I work for the Department for Education in the Teacher Services area. Teacher Services is a big area in the Department of Education [DfE], and our goal is to get excellent teachers for every child. My job title is actually Lead Infrastructure Engineer and me and my colleague, we take care of the cloud infrastructure for all the services that are developed in Teacher Services. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So Colin, thanks for introducing yourself. You work in Teacher Services, I was wondering, how does that relate to PaaS? 

 

Colin Saliceti: 

In Teacher Services, we create and develop a number of services for, mainly for teachers and their careers. So we have a number of service teams which do a lot of development. So we need to provide them with the best tools to deploy their services and make it available for the, the public. And PaaS is a very good tool for that. We have different options. But we have experimented with one service which was teaching vacancies earlier, and this proved a massive success. And then next, we expanded to more and more services. 

 

For example, Get Into Teaching, which is our main information website for teachers. That's where they can get information about the career, they can get in touch with an advisor, they can subscribe to events, and they can actually start the process to get them to-to become a teacher.

 

And it ties well with another service that's also on PaaS, called Find Teacher Training. So the future candidates can find a-a teacher training. So this is a very important website that the providers of training all across England advertise their courses and the candidates can apply for them through the website.

 

And we also have another one, which is Register Trainee Teacher - which is also on PaaS; it's not live yet, but it's almost there - where we can actually track all the, the trainees and see at which stage they are in-in their training and follow them in the beginning of their career. So there's quite a number of different services and it's just growing.  

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So our next question is what the advantage is of hosting on PaaS versus other solutions, would you mind explaining what the benefit of it is? 

 

Colin Saliceti: 

The first thing is because it's easy compared to different platforms. 

 

It's not easy because it's simple. It's easy because t-the platform packages a lot of features, but the way to use it, the interface to use it is, it's-it's quite easy for us. So we don't actually need a highly skilled specialist, at least in the beginning, to get on board with PaaS. So a Service Team with developers, they can manage themselves to deploy to-to PaaS without any assistance, at least in the first stages.

 

It's very important that it's a very flexible platform. And we can deploy the production website, but we can deploy many test websites if we need to, and we can deploy a new one for, to test something in particular, and then we can destroy it because we don't need it again and we don't need to pay for it again. So that, this flexibility is very important. And it also makes it very cost effective because we only pay for what we use and when we don't need it, we can scale down or just delete it.  

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I was wondering if you have a user story that relates to the service that shows why it was a good idea to go with PaaS. 

 

Colin Saliceti: 

I got a very good example in the, actually, in the other part of the department.

 

After Teaching Vacancies, which was the-the first, it became obvious that PaaS was a good choice and some of other teams adopted it as well in, in DfE. So you may have heard of the laptops that we delivered to all the schools and for the disadvantaged kids who, to help them do the homeschooling. And so this was done thanks to a programme called Get Help with Tech. This was built very quickly and it was built on PaaS from day one. And PaaS proved that there was very important because we were able to build very quickly and iterate very quickly until we got the service right and we're able to deliver to all the schools in England. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So I was wondering if I was a member of a different government department or a different team, how would you convince me to use GOV.UK PaaS?

 

Colin Saliceti: 

First of all, the reasons I already explained: that it's easy to use and the, the learning curve is very easy. This flexibility is amazing as well, and that's really cost effective.

 

It's also very important that it's provided by government, it's not a separate commercial platform, it is actually provided by GDS. So all the security assurance has already been done and it's assured up to different levels of confidentiality. So you don't actually, in your department, you don't actually need to do that work again because it was already done by GDS.

 

And another thing is that because it's supported by GDS and we have an amazing relationship with them and we get an excellent support for them, from them, from the people who build and actually run the platform, and we have direct contact with them. And they're also here 24/7 in case of an issue. Which, so it's a great experience to run things on PaaS. 

 

[VOX POP ENDS]

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So that was Colin. I also want to hasten to add, he was very concerned with appearing impartial because he did work at GDS previously on PaaS. Just wanted to make sure that he was completely representing DfE only.

 

Mark Buckley: 

And that's the impartial version? Well, that's, that's good to hear. [chair squeaks]

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I think your chair just laughed.

 

Mark Buckley: 

Yeah, potentially. 

 

No, we've been working with DfE and Colin for, for a long time, but it's, it's great that Colin is still enjoying the benefits of our platform.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Anything stand out otherwise? I was wondering, he mentioned, for instance, the really good support that you provide and I think, Clare, you mentioned that as well, coming out in your user research interviews. 

 

Clare Barnett: 

Yeah, that comes up a-alot when we talk to our users, because it's part of what makes PaaS so cost-effective for people, but it's also it-it means that people feel reassured that they're going to get the help and support. They get you know, responses. There's a really quick turnaround time for, for responses.

 

And we offer it not just through our support platform, called Zendesk, but we'll say through Slack. So there-there's multiple channels that people can use to get that support. And they will always be speaking to somebody from the team, as Colin said, who is well-versed in the platform, very experienced. And often the team will pair on them if they're trying to troubleshoot or problem-solve something and-and often help them fix problems that are not actually a PaaS problem. It might be that there's a problem with their, their code their end and quite often the PaaS team help identify that. So there's a lot of added value in that support package for our users.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That seems to chime a lot as well with what Colin is talking about in terms of it being a really good test environment, in terms of being able to try things out, see if they work or not. Is that a common kind of use case across government?

 

Mark Buckley: 

Yeah it's, but...we-we support services and applications running from everything from discoveries and alphas. As Colin was kind of mentioning, sort quick prototypes to check the viability. As Clare mentioned earlier, designers using it to test out and iterate sort of content and things like that. So you've got that at, at the start of the journey, but also all the way up to running mature products and services that teams do iterate on and improve those as well after going live, as it were.

 

It’s, in a sort of roundabout, roundabout way both Colin and Himal mentioned that things like Infrastructure as a Service, IaaS, and requiring real expertise and specialists. And quite often in government and early on in those services when they're getting up and running, will rely on suppliers and external parties to come in, maybe contractors, to come in and build things. And if they're built with incredibly specialist skills, then that becomes really difficult to maintain in the long term when the build team might have moved on to other projects for instance.

 

Having a platform like GOV.UK PaaS enables services to only need to recruit and employ Developers that they need and not the additional specialists and some, that kind of thing so that they can quickly iterate and test things out and not be at risk of not being able to support what they're doing over the long term. So, yeah, it's, what Colin said kind of brings a tear to the eye, right, in terms of being able to quickly build those things on a supported platform that can then enable support to folks in lockdown that really need help with education and homeschool. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

We always love it when our services have that direct impact, I think it's a lot more relatable to people to say I've got my kid a refurbished laptop, rather than saying that now you can get your document checked, because obviously Document Checking Service is much more a business-to-business kind of environment, isn't it?

 

So we've heard from some of the people who are using GOV.UK PaaS about why they like it, and about how your team develops it, but I think it's time now to share some GOV.UK PaaS fast facts with our listeners. As a starter for 10, can you tell me whether there's maybe a record for how fast a service was stood up via GOV.UK PaaS?

 

Mark Buckley: 

You know, even though we are, from a development point of view, you can do a cf push and your application is running in minutes, in terms of actual real life bonafide services, the Shielded Vulnerable People Service as part of the support for people shielding and to get them support during coronavirus, the, there was a first kind of pull request on that service at 4pm on a Thursday, and the service itself went live when the Prime Minister a-announced it on, on the Monday.

 

So you know, within the space of 4 days, you've got something stood up and running on PaaS that, and the first care packages, or support packages, delivered to people within a week kind of thing. Which, yeah, at-at the beginning when, you know it seems like a long time ago now, was this was almost, almost almost a year ago, it was like indispensable to have GOV.UK PaaS and the other common platforms as well, GOV.UK Notify and GOV.UK Pay as ways to very quickly, cheaply and easily stand up new services. So 4 days to support the Vulnerable People Service was a really nice thing to do. I don't know if it's a record, but it's a good, good story.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

If you want to hear more about how this service was stood up, you can listen to our February episode of the podcast. 

 

Clearly GOV.UK PaaS has had an important part to play in the UK government response to coronavirus but what other services do you host that you think listeners might be surprised by? 

 

Mark Buckley: 

It's not only GOV.UK designed system services and things like that, as, as mentioned, NHS, local authorities, various kinds of things are hosted. I think the probably most unusual service that is hosted on GOV.UK PaaS is called Cosmic Bazaar - and not bizarre as in unusual, although it is unusual, Bazaar as is in markets or souk [laughs] I suppose - which is a forecasting platform for economists to hone their, yeah forecasting and evaluation skills as part of the Cabinet Office. So that was an unusual one to be posed with. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Clare, I'm thinking that across all of these various services that are being set up on PaaS, the user research element of it is probably still going to remain consistent even as the applications vary across the 'bazaar' to the mundane. Is that right?

 

Clare Barnett: 

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, yes, we have a really wide variety of services, but within that we have a kind of core set of different types of users - they fit into you know, a certain user type that we see. Which means that we can build the product around those user types rather than building and designing the product around very kind of specific niche services. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So my final question is just about whether you've known about any other governments taking advantage of our research here. For instance Notify, we've been quite grateful and flattered where the Australian government, the Canadian government, the Department for Veteran Affairs in America, they've used the GitHub basically forked it and made their own variations of it. I was wondering, have you heard about that being the case maybe for PaaS?

 

Mark Buckley: 

We actually have a bit of a kind of community ourselves with other, other 'PaaS's' from around the world. So our PaaS, GOV.UK PaaS, is built upon a technology called Cloud Foundry, which is the abstraction layer I suppose away from the raw infrastructure that Colin and others have talked about. And as well as ourselves, also the Australian government and the American government, Cloud.Gov, use Cloud Foundry as well. So there's been quite a lot of sharing between our teams. So 18F was the kind of equivalent of GDS in America. We have quite frequent contact with them. We have shared our repos, we've used some of their repos. So yeah, that's a lovely global community of Cloud Foundry and PaaS users.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That’s so great. Like I know we do a lot of international work but it’s, it’s really quite heartening to see that what, you know that we’re collaborating internationally in something that’s so important. What a lovely note to end on right?

 

So yeah, thank you so much to all of our guests for coming on today. You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. The transcripts are available on PodBean. 

 

Goodbye. 

 

Mark Buckley: 

Bye. 

 

Clare Barnett: 

Bye.

Government Digital Service Podcast #27: Clinically Extremely Vulnerable People Service

Government Digital Service Podcast #27: Clinically Extremely Vulnerable People Service

February 24, 2021

Vanessa Schneider:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Vanessa Schneider and I am Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS. Today we will be talking about the Clinically Extremely Vulnerable People Service and we will be joined by several guests.

 

You'll be hearing from Sally Benson from the Department of Work and Pensions [DWP], Martin Woolhead from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA], Kate Nicholls from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government [MHCLG], and Nick Tait from GDS. As you can tell by this long list of participants, the Clinically Extremely Vulnerable People Service involved a lot of people working for a lot of departments - it was truly a cross-government effort. 

 

But you might not be clear on what it is. In March 2020 as a critical response to the developing COVID-19 pandemic, GDS rapidly built the Clinically Extremely Vulnerable People Service, also known as VPS, to provide support for clinically extremely vulnerable people in England, who had been advised to shield. The service was stood up over one weekend and then continuously iterated to support emerging policy and user needs.

 

The service enables clinically extremely vulnerable people to register their personal details and support needs, which are securely stored, validated against NHS shielded patient lists for eligibility and securely transferred to frontline service providers. During the period of national shielding from 23 March to 30 July, that is wave one of shielding, the Vulnerable People Service facilitated more than 4.2 million deliveries of essential supplies, support with basic health and care needs, as well as providing priority supermarket deliveries.

 

Joining me now are Kate Nicholls and Nick Tait. Thank you for being here. Would you mind introducing yourselves to the listeners? Let's start with Kate.

 

Kate Nicholls: 

Sure. Hi, I'm Kate Nicholls. I've been working in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as part of the shielding programme, particularly on the Data Policy Team. So we work really closely with GDS on the kind of ongoing development of the Vulnerable People Service. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Amazing. Thanks for joining us Kate. Nick, would you mind introducing yourself? 

 

Nick Tait: 

Absolutely. Hello everybody. My name is Nick Tait. I'm the Service Owner for the Clinically Extremely Vulnerable People Service here in GDS. And I've been with the programme since 5 May 2020.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thank you. So both of you work for parts of government that have been instrumental in the development of the service. I was wondering how you came to join the teams that were working on this?

 

Nick Tait: 

It was pretty much born of necessity really and, and practicality. As you said in your introduction Vanessa, there were a, and there remain, a lot of interested parties, a lot of stakeholders, too much for any one department to do, given the, the nature of our response to the emergency that we found, we find ourselves in. And the 2, as far as GDS and MHCLG were concerned or are concerned, we're the 2 main players: we represent the policy and the delivery of said policy as far as the digital service goes. And furthermore, as the project has progressed, it's become expedient for us to get closer to both policy makers and, and people they know - so relationships with local authorities, for example, are best facilitated by colleagues at MHCLG. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Kate, I know that you joined the MHCLG team working on this a little while into the VPS [Vulnerable People Service] being set up. How did you experience that?

 

Kate Nicholls: 

It was actually a really great time to join because all of those kind of key relationships between GDS and MHCLG had already been established. And when I joined the team, it already really had that kind of “one team” feel. So I-I'd come from a completely different job elsewhere in government policy. And I came here and it was just, yeah, this kind of efficient machine [laughs] that was just like achieving things every single day. So, yeah, it was, it was a great kind of feeling joining in with that.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Amazing. Both of you touch on relationships being established, being really valuable. Do you think you've experienced anything on this scale where you've had to tap in so many departments working on the same project before? Or do you reckon that this is, and I dare use the dreaded word, unprecedented?

 

Nick Tait: 

M-my experience of a civil servant, there has been nothing quite like this. And for me, the fact--sure, I've worked on other programmes where there are perhaps as many stakeholders, but not at this pace. We have excellent governance practises in, processes in place. But they happen at 2 weekly cycles. But you know, at-at the working level of getting the job done then to really hone in on where those key relationships are, that's something that we have had to do in order to respond at scale. And, and I should add that because there are so many stakeholders, we have Engagement Leads on the project whose main job is to consult with local authorities or with DWP or with the food and medicine supplies and so on and so forth. So it-it multiplies out. But yeah, nothing quite like this before. I think it's fair to say.

 

Kate Nicholls: 

Completely agree with Nick. So I've worked on teams in the Civil Service before where there's been, you know, a degree of close working with departments. But I don't think the kind of level that we've got to where, you know, you could just pick up the phone and speak to anyone on the GDS side if you're in MHCLG and, and vice versa. And it's just kind of, it's just right there at your fingertips. I think that's something I've never quite experienced before. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I'm, I'm really glad to hear that went [laughs] well then.What was it like working with colleagues in departments like Department for Health and Social Care [DHSC] and external organisations like the NHS, who may be structured differently because of their work being so focused directly on the public?

 

Kate Nicholls: 

Sure. Yeah, so we've, we've worked really closely with NHS Digital (NHS D) because they sort of provide the shielded patient list, the SPL, which is basically the kind of the heart of the whole project. 

 

So while GDS have built this wonderful registration system, the people that that's targeted at are the people who are identified clinically by doctors and other clinicians to be extremely vulnerable. So we've had to kind of, similarly to how we've done with GDS, we had to build up really good working relationships with them, have sort of regular meetings, joint governance, and really kind of create that kind of “one team” feel to make sure that, that the right sort of data on those who are clinically extremely vulnerable is flowing through our system, is flowing to local authorities, you know, whilst also keeping patient records safe, secure and, and sort of operating legally. So that's kind of the challenge of what we've have to do with NHS D. And I think by building up really good working relationships with them that's how we've managed to kind of overcome that and, and use that data in a way that hasn't, you know, really happened with patient data ever before in the past.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Nick, was there anything that you could add about either the working relationship with DHSC or NHS Digital?

 

Nick Tait: 

So my, my experience around DHSC, the one that I'd sort of pinpoint is, is their involvement at the overall, overall programme steering board - where we have had regular contact with the Deputy Chief Medical Officer [DCMO]. And having, having senior stakeholders as, as embodied in DCMO to go, and there is all of this happening helps frame our work a little bit more, and then that comes down to, to working level, where it is the nuts and bolts of the all, all important shielded persons list, which, as Kate says, is, without which we'd be scrabbling about. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So we actually talked to Martin Woolhead from DEFRA, which is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, regarding the Vulnerable People Service. And he also shared with us a little bit about the working relationships between the departments. 

 

[CLIP STARTS]

 

Martin Woolhead: 

I'm Martin Woolhead. I'm Deputy Director for Food for the Vulnerable in DEFRA, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. My role essentially is overseeing policy and work on food for vulnerable people. So that ranges from work with food charities and local authorities to essentially get and look after food needs for vulnerable people. 

 

One of the things I think constantly cropped up throughout the process was that, for example, on what we did on food supply, MHCLG could also have done that, you know MHCLG as programme owners, and working on this across government and leading it, could also have essentially contracted with food suppliers to deliver the, the packages of essential supplies that were delivered. The reason it wasn't done in that way was simply because of those relationships and the urgency that we had. So because we had the existing relationships, DEFRA was able to kind of work specifically on that bit and get it done quickly.

 

So, so where DEFRA worked on food supply because of its existing relationships, other departments had relationships with others. So in regard to the supply of medical supplies so medicines and things, DHSC led on that element because they had the relationships. And so with MHCLG convening, they were able to kind of use the relationships that other departments had and kind of, you know, outsource those bits. And for me that's part of the reason why it was done so quickly. So with all of the urgency, we used existing relationships to get things done. 

 

From, I think, the first ask for, you know, essential supplies to help shielded people, to boxes of essential supplies starting to appear on doorsteps, took around 10 days. And from the announcement of shielding, so when shielding was first announced publicly, to people first receiving their essential supplies was 5 days. And you know, in the context of panic buying across the country, in the context of the global pandemic, the fact that we were able to organise direct doorstep, essential packages to any doorstep in England, and, and most services don't offer that. You know, most supermarkets won't offer doorstep delivery to every address in England, in just 5 days, I think was an incredible achievement.

 

[CLIP ENDS]

 

Kate Nicholls: 

Yeah, we already had people that were experts in food supplies that knew the supermarkets. We already had a Government Digital Service with like expert content providers, people who are experts in, in data protection. We already had MHCLG, who have, like, links into councils and a really good understanding of what councils do on the ground and deliver. And also everybody in each of those departments already knew that we already have those people in the other departments. And you know I've missed people: DWP, who, you know, know everything about [laughs] how to set up an outbound call centre. So I guess it's kind of, it's a really positive story about the kind of existing connectivity between departments and different levels of quite, sort of deep expertise in different areas that we were able to draw upon pretty quickly.

 

Nick Tait: 

Yeah, I think, I think I'd echo that. I mean no individual department needed to reinvent any wheels really. The, the programme trusted each department to, to focus on its, its domain area and to do that well. Which, which happened. The, the challenge wasn't sort of reinventing the wheel, it was to build the new one. And the new one was around the data sharing, was around actually gluing a, a relatively disparate bunch of people within, within government to work together. And once people sort of trusted that ‘Department X’ would take care of their stuff and ‘Department Y’ would do theirs, then it was just the governance and the working that needed to be worked out. Which sounds dismissive. It isn't at all. There was, there was hard work to do there. But we didn't sort of go, “'oh, well I've, I've done food policy' says non-food policy department, 'so I'll get involved with that.'” There was, there was no time for that sort of shenanigans, and people were focussed on what they knew best. And that was the, the real strength. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I was going to say, in a very cheesy way, everybody brought their own wheels, and it turns out they were cogs that all worked together, and it made a very smooth machine. [laughs]

 

Nick Tait: 

Indeed. Indeed. [laughs] 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So clearly relationships are a key part to this having worked so well, but are there, are there other drivers that you can think of that supported the development of the service?

 

Nick Tait: 

I guess..so like the-the key driver, as in everything we do, is meeting the needs of our users. That's you know, primary directive: users first. And I think what we've learnt over the project is like, when everything was stood up in April, May 2020, the primary needs to be met were those of the clinically extremely vulnerable population. And, and as we became one team, we, we began to expand or, or more fully understand who our users were, how best are we serving service providers, whether it was wholesalers delivering food boxes, whether it was local authority, civil servants at the front line, who are in fact proxies, or can act as proxies, for CEV [clinically extremely vulnerable] users and use the system themselves and have their own requirements in their own local authorities.

 

And then sort of a, a third section of, of our users would be our stakeholders in terms of those who consume and then act upon the data that is presented via the dashboards that, that the Management, Information and Data Analytics teams provide. So I think, you know, the key driver has, has always been and will remain our users and that's sort of enshrined in how the service has been built. But what has changed, and, and continues to be iterated upon, is, is how we understand who our user population is and, and how best to serve that. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you think that the service benefited from products such as GOV.UK Notify already being in place? But also, for instance, the data lists for the shielded people - because that data already existed, was that something that made your lives easier?

 

Nick Tait: 

Notify, yes, I can't, I don't, I don't want to entertain thinking about how things might have been had we not had a readily accessible solution to communicate in as many channels as possible, whether it's a physical letter, whether it was an email or a text message, which would have happened via Notify. And, and don't forget that, either t-that DWP colleagues had o-outward bound call centres. We also had our interactive voice recognition system that was part of the initial wave one service that allowed people to, to register - that was inbound only, but, but nonetheless. So having, having access to tools and technology that, that we could trust because they've been tried and tested before us, made, made our lives easier.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I was wondering as well: because the user was required to submit their details that were checked against that list provided by the NHS and DEFRA provided details to retailers under specific and secure conditions, I was wondering how the safety and security of user data was ensured and how was the data joined up to make sure the right people were giving the appropriate support?

 

Kate Nicholls: 

That was something that again is kind of, to use the, the much used word, unprecedented. So that was an area where we had to get all of the right people with the right legal expertise and data protection expertise - so with you know, the data protection leads across DEFRA, DWP, MHCLG, GDS, the Data Protection Officers - all together. They formed a kind of data governance oversight board. Whilst we you know, we were kind of under a lot of pressure to work really quickly and get data to, to you know supermarkets, to councils, et cetera as quickly as we could, we had a really kind of rigorous group of experts holding us [laughs] to account to make sure that we had the right data sharing agreements in place, the right MoUs [Memorandum of Understanding] and, and all of that kind of information governance documentation. So that was really appreciated, and it sort of goes back to the running theme of that cross-government working - if we hadn't been able to get all of those people in place and we just couldn't have made it work.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I believe there was a transfer tool as well. Could you tell me more about that perhaps? I believe it meant that you could select how people or which people could access what data if I got that right. 

 

Nick Tait:

So we-we use...for the cloud hosting service that we use for our data storage, ben-benefits from its own internal security reviews that they perform on the overall system. And then their secure storage solutions are compliant with our strict regulatory requirements. So in our case what this means, and this is where the, the data transfer tool comes in, is that all of our data is encrypted, both when we store it in the database and when we share it with whosoever we are sharing it with, whether it is a local authority or another government department.

 

And then at the same time, and talking of regulations, we've, we've established a sort of our own processes around the database. So if you think about GDPR and the principle of the 'right to be forgotten', that's, we have our own processes for this. And if, if our listener is interested, then they can, they can go to our service page and our, all of our privacy documentation is open and, and available there.

 

So like even for our teams or members of the engineering teams who have access to production, only those with security clearance can access them. It's not available to Tom, Dick or Harriet, so to speak. And we, we log and audit everything. So at any given time, who accessed which piece of data at one point, that information is always available to us. So, you know, we, we take personally identifiable information very, very seriously on this. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

It sounds like you're doing your due diligence, I hope the listeners are heartened by that.

 

Nick Tait: 

Yeah. [laughs]

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So next I was wondering, obviously we hope that something like this never happens again. That's the whole point behind the unprecedented language of course. But I was wondering if at the very least, there are learnings that you can take away from this project and the collaboration that you've carried out as well as maybe what not to do?

 

Kate Nicholls: 

I guess the main, the main thing I've learnt as somebody who's a-a policy official, who's never worked on a digital project before, I think I've learnt something very valuable from colleagues in GDS about, about that user base development and continuous improvement, particularly in an environment where you're setting something up very, very quickly as an emergency response.

 

And I think the more, as we've gone along, the more we've consulted our users - and I'm particularly, from an MHCLG perspective, thinking about councils - and ask them you know, what they think and take in their feedback and expose ourselves to kind of their, their comments and their perspectives, the better the system has become. And I think that's definitely, I guess, a general learning for me. But also if, if I, if, you know, we were ever in a position to be doing something like this again, doing that kind of immediate, constant almost consultation with users would be my main learning from kind of a policy person from the digital world, because I know user base, [laughs] user base development is already a kind of a thing that, that is common across the development of digital platforms.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

You're sounding like an ambassador for Agile and user-based research there. That's amazing. But I was also really keen on you identifying, sort of, users outside of the clinically extremely vulnerable people and the local authorities. Because obviously the, the service has now changed because it's a much more local approach to providing these services, isn't it?

 

Kate Nicholls: 

Yeah, definitely. I think there are, so both in wave one and wave two, on the ground in councils, the picture is a lot more complex. You know, our service talks about kind of basic support needs, but the kind of detailed assessment of each individual is happening at that council level, and, and the delivery of that support is happening across all sorts of organisations, voluntary organisations, NHS volunteer responders, charities, et cetera. And I think a-another kind of key, I guess key groups that we've tried to listen to are you know, groups like Age UK, all those voluntary groups that are actually on the ground doing these things. They're not direct users of our service, but kind of by proxy of, of being connected to the council, they are linked to the eventual kind of frontline service that our platform leads to.

 

Nick Tait: 

To echo Kate: having policy at a sort of a, a high level, have, having policy and delivery in the same room a-a-around the same virtual whiteboard makes for better service delivery. And I-I think that's the, you know, p-personally and then sort of to, to share more widely within GDS that that, for me, it feels like the only way that this can work. Because otherwise it, it will be a far more protracted process. So, I mean, we, we talk about closer working and collaboration and the tools that sort of facilitate all of this, but we, in my experience, we do that because it's true. And this, and this project is, is proof to me at least, and I, and I hope to our users that, that is the case.

 

So I think the other thing I, I'd reflect on over the time of the project was: at, at the very beginning, our, our, our overall governance was, was weighty. There was a lot of it. And over, over time as the working relationships have developed and the collaboration has developed and some of that governance has been more focussed on the bits that we're actually working on. So I think that's another reflection from me. 

 

And I, yeah, again we say it very sort of readily now, and, and we took it quite lightly to start with, but the whole “hashtag one team”. Again, i-it's not a joke, it really is, it's the real deal for us and wi-without that, we, we wouldn't be, I think, having a happy conversation like this. And as you say, I hope we don't have to respond on this level before, but there is enough learning here to, well to make an, a really active and considered response quickly, rather than as fast as you can, which is kind of where we were to, to start with, back in 2020.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Of course. At the time, you know it was just about getting it stood up, wasn't it? 

 

So we did talk to a couple of your colleagues in other departments. And one of them was Sally Benson from the DWP, that’s the Department for Work and Pensions. So we’re just going to listen to something that Sally shared with us. 

 

[CLIP STARTS]

 

Sally Benson: 

My name is Sally Benson, and my day job before being involved on the National Shielding Helpline as part of the critically extremely vulnerable service is working for the Department for Work and Pensions. More specifically, I'm a Senior Operational Leader in the Child Maintenance Group.

 

I think when we actually bring it home, 2 people stick out in my mind in terms of people that we phoned. Samantha, a blind lady that had no, no friends or family, immediate support around her, wasn't on a, you know, a mobile telephone. But the National Shielding Helpline were able to get in contact with her and, and put her in touch with those people that were able to help her.

 

Another lady that we also spoke to was a lady called Carol. And it became apparent from the outset of the call that, that Carol was, was experiencing some, some health difficulties on the phone and was talking to us about how she was having trouble breathing. And actually, we had a process in place that enabled us to call the emergency services. Our call centre agents remained on the call talking to Carol, making sure that she was ok and staying with her until the emergency services actually arrived.

 

It turns out that Carol was actually suffering a heart attack whilst on the phone to us. And unfortunately, there were 1,400 people throughout the whole of the, of the shielding contact centre process that, that actually needed us to refer to the emergency services. And I think, you know, w-wherever you are and whatever part you played in the, in the national shielding service, whether it be, you know, the data side of it and, and enabling us to actually contact people like Carol in the first place, whether it be decision makers and policy makers that, that actually decided that people like Carol needed, needed our help and our attention, or whether or not you were part of the actual contact centre that, for Department of Work and Pensions. 

 

Everybody played a part in, in making sure that we genuinely supported and protected those most vulnerable. And I think we've got to keep Samantha and Carol at the forefront of our mind when, when we are truly understanding the difference that, that we made. And, and it's those, those things that really give that sense of pride, real sense of purpose, and, and how together working across government, we, we really do look after those most vulnerable in our society. And the National Shielding Service was a perfect example of, of that.

 

[CLIP ENDS]

 

Nick Tait: 

For the GDS teams, we are intimately connected on the user research level because our user research involves speaking directly with the clinically extremely vulnerable as well as our other user groups. And this is on one hand, very, very stressful for people; especially in the earlier days of the service when people were in dire straits for the need of basic care supplies. And that, that has an impact and an effect on, on the people who are conducting that research. And we have to take care to support and, and look after our own team members who are open to this.

 

It's a very present now-now validation of the work that you're doing. I think as civil servants we are all contributing to the enhancement, I hope, of the society within which we live, but to have that [finger snap] instant feedback or relatively instant feedback is very, very powerful indeed.

 

Kate Nicholls: 

Yeah, I'd agree with Nick on that point. I think you always, you know, as a civil servant, working on, kind of, policies that you hope will have an impact on the public. But often you might be waiting months or years to actually see that manifest - just because of, you know, how long policy development in normal times takes. But yeah, to be able to, kind of, immediately see how what you're doing is actually helping people in, in some small or big way is, is a really great thing about working on this. Even though it definitely comes with some of it's, kind of, pressure and stresses. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I was wondering if you had any achievements that you wanted to call out specifically, any milestones, any, maybe shoutouts to colleagues that you wanted to praise publicly?

 

Nick Tait: 

So I think it's, it's...whilst I'm not a huge fan of milestones, there are certainly achievements that, that it serves us well to remember. So the service itself was stood up over a weekend, 4 days or thereabouts. And then for those registered users, essential supplies were arriving on doorsteps 10 days later. That's pretty amazing. And then over time in, in, in, from the March to the end of July 2020, just over 4 million deliveries of essential supplies were made. So you know this is real stuff happening. So I'm, I'm quietly proud of those things. And I think all of the teams genuinely have done the, the best they could with the tools they had at hand a-and with the information they had at the time, and we've taken time throughout the, the project, or the programme, to pause and to reflect and to ask ourselves: 'what can we do better?' 

 

And some, and some of that has been sort of like recognised formally. So in terms of shout outs, then I-I guess we'd give a shout out to David Dilley from GDS, who was very surprised on a personal level and nonetheless very, very happy to receive an excellence and leadership award at the, the Cabbies last week. So, these things are all good to have. And, and to work on a service that, that impacts people's lives pretty quickly is often enough.

 

Kate Nicholls: 

Yeah, again, I-I feel like specific milestones maybe aren't quite what the thing that makes me kind of the proudest of the, of working on the project. I think the kind of continuous professionalism and kind of, I guess thirst for improvement is what impresses me about working on this project. So obviously the beginning, you know there was a very clear emergency response and, and a lot of momentum [laughs] that kind of comes with that. But I think it's really impressive that even though that kind of initial phase is, you know, of emergency is, is past us now, there's still kind of that appetite to constantly, to constantly test [laughs] with the users, to constantly improve. We just, just last week, we kind of implemented some improvements to the data feeds based on local authority feedback. And I think it's really inspiring to see people who are so enthusiastic about, sort of, delivering not just something that's good enough and does the job, but something that is constantly getting better. 

 

Nick Tait: 

A-a really like serious achievement in terms of like the overall, sort of, easing of some of the pressure has been the overall relationship with, with local authorities. So we, we meet regularly, fortnightly at the moment. It used to be weekly with our, our local authority working group, which is made up of, unsurprisingly, members of local authorities from different parts of the country who have different experiences and, sort of, maturity of, of, of digital. And when we started there were a lot of, sort of, folded arms and like, 'what, what are we all doing here then?'

 

But that group of people has stayed relatively constant, has put the hours in, has, sort of, really risen to the challenge of collective working and collaborative working. And, and now, as Kate has just, sort of, evidenced, that group of people is co-designing the service. And, and that for me is an, is an achievement. But there's no, sort of, milestone because it's been continually being, being worked at and worked t-towards by, by everybody in that group. And, and again, like so many things, it, it hasn't been a particularly smooth ride, it's been a bit bumpy in places. And that's totally fine. But because, again as Kate said, everybody was kind and humble and professional about it and, and felt free to, to air any concerns that they had. And, and collectively that group is delivering, and that's just wonderful.

 

Kate Nicholls: 

Yeah, I definitely think we owe a lot to the kind of openness and, and I guess willingness to give us their time of local authorities. Obviously I would say that being from MHCLG. But you know, in, in so many different fora we have across the shielding directorate, the stakeholder engagement forum, where we get lots of valid feedback, we run kind of weekly surgery sessions with councils where we get so much kind of valuable insight into what it's actually like to use our service on the ground to deliver real stuff [laughs] to people. 

 

Yeah, as Nick said, we've got our invaluable local authority, working group. So, yeah, I think that's a really, really big part of any of the success that we can, we can claim to have had from the system comes from that, for sure.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Amazing. Yeah, it's, it's not always easy for these external parties who might not have been there from the beginning to work on this in a way that they might not be familiar with. Obviously, it's a very Agile approach with GDS, and that's been something that's been spreading around government. But it's not necessarily something that local government has had to work with yet. So it's, it's great that they're signing on and that they're really engaged with it as well.

 

Well [laughs] on that positive note - thank you so much to all of our guests for coming on today. You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on Podbean. Goodbye. 

 

Nick Tait: 

Goodbye.

 

Kate Nicholls: 

Goodbye.

Government Digital Service Podcast #26: GDS Quiz 2020

Government Digital Service Podcast #26: GDS Quiz 2020

December 30, 2020

Vanessa Schneider: 

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Vanessa Schneider and I am Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS. Today, we are looking back as fondly as we can on 2020. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that this was a momentous year and we have many reasons to be proud of what our organisation and our colleagues have achieved. 

 

What better way to reflect on the year than to ask a couple of my colleagues to put their knowledge to the test? We're going to see who has been paying attention to GDS happenings in 2020. Please welcome my guests Louise Harris and Kit Clark.

 

Louise Harris: 

Hey, Vanessa, good to be here.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Great to have you on, Lou. Do you mind telling us what you do at GDS and to spice things up a little bit for the end of the year, maybe a fun fact about yourself?

 

Louise Harris: 

Sure. Well, of course, we know each other very well, Vanessa, because I have the pleasure of working with you in the Creative Team. But for everybody else, I'm Lou and I head up the Channels and Creative Team at GDS. I'm a relatively new starter - I'm one of our lockdown joiners because I joined in May 2020. In terms of a fun fact, it may surprise some of you given my accent to know that I'm a fluent Welsh speaker.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

You sou-I-do you sound very Welsh? You know what? We've got to put it to the test. Can you tell me what the team is called that you work for in Welsh? 

 

Louise Harris: 

Ok, this is something I think I can do. So I'll give you my intro again in Welsh. Louise Harris dw’ i, a rwy’n gweithio yn y Tim Creadigol a Sianeli yng Ngwasanaeth Digidol y Llywodraeth.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Ok, anybody who knows Welsh, you've got to contact us and tell us if she got it right or not. Kit, would you mind introducing yourself? 

 

Kit Clark: 

Sure. My name's Kit, I'm an Engagement Manager within the Strategic Engagement Function. An interesting fact I suppose about myself, is that my uncle composed the Eastenders theme tune. So that's something I always, always bring out in introductions.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I was warned that your interesting fact would be amazing. And I think it does live up to that disclaimer. I think that is a very, very fun fact indeed.

 

Louise Harris: 

I was not warned that your fun fact was going to be as good Kit, I'm so impressed by that. What a claim to fame.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I think I might just start with the quiz. Of course, if you're at home, you can play along if you like. Just make sure to keep score as you go, as I'll be sharing the answer after each question.

 

So let's start with the first question of the quiz. 

 

Here it is: what was the most popular GDS podcast episode in 2020? So what topic do you think was in the most popular episode? I'll take that as an answer. 

 

[horn noise] 

 

Louise Harris: 

I'm presuming that we're excluding this episode from the list of most popular ones, so it's the most popular one before this one, right? 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yes. I'm afraid we don't have any foresight, so it'll have to be one from January to November. 

 

Louise Harris: 

OK, well I think we've had some really great guests and different people from across government this year. The big one has got to be the GOV.UK response to Coronavirus and setting up the Coronavirus landing page - I think that was such a big achievement, both in terms of the work that was done to get that product up and out, but also for you folks over here on the podcast, because I believe that was the first remote recorded podcast that we did.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Hmm. Any thoughts, Kit? Any competing offers?

 

Kit Clark: 

Not too sure. I know that accessibility's been quite a theme this year, and I believe that was in January. But I also know there was a couple of celebration ones - there was one looking at two years of Local Digital Declaration. So I think I might I go, I think COVID's a great shot but I'm going to go different and go accessibility. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Alright. So there are some pretty solid guesses with both of you. Well done. I can reveal that the third most popular episode was in fact our accessibility episode. Good hunch there Kit. Second most popular was about the GOV.UK Design System. But indeed in first place, most popular episode this year was on the GOV.UK response to COVID-19. 

 

Louise Harris: 

Wahoo!

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Points go to Lou on that. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Alright. So GDS has run a lot of stories this year. My second question is about the blog and which post attracted the most attention?

 

[horn noise] 

 

Louise Harris: 

This is a really tricky one because I think we've had so many good stories go out this year about the work that GDS has been doing across government. And of course, so much of what we do is used by our colleagues in the public sector. So there's often a lot of interest in what we have to say, which is great.

 

I mean, a big moment for me this year was our Global Accessibility Awareness Day celebrations where we were joined by thousands of people who came together to talk about digital accessibility and the work that we needed to do. So I feel like maybe the wrap up blog that we did about that, which had all of the links to the training webinars, I feel like that might be pretty popular. And even if it wasn't the most popular, it was definitely my favourite. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, I, I can reveal to you that the third most popular post this year introduced GOV.UK Accounts. 

 

Louise Harris: 

How could we forget? That was such a big story. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Well, you might want to hold onto that thought. It could just help you later in the quiz. Our second most popular post described the launch of our online Introduction to Content Design course. Content Design, hugely popular. I think we might have done a podcast episode about that. Finally, I can reveal our most popular post in 2020 explained how GOV.UK Notify reliably sends text messages to users. 

 

Let's go on to our next question. As a bit of a preamble GDS leads the Digital, Data and Technology Function in government, which is also known as the DDaT Function. And we believe firmly in user-centred design, hint hint - keywords. So there are several job families in DDaT, but can you tell me how many job roles feature in the user-centred design family? 

 

[buzzer noise] 

 

Kit Clark: 

There's seven.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

You seem pretty sure about that. On a dare, could you name all of them?

 

Kit Clark: 

I hope so because I've had some training on it relatively recently. So in the user centred design family, there's the user researcher, content strategist, the technical writer, and then there's the content design, graphic design, service design, and the interaction design.

 

Louise Harris: 

Wow, hats off Kit. I had a feeling it was like about seven roles, but I don't think I could have named them. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I am, I am very impressed. You gotta make sure that that team doesn't poach you away from us now. For those of you following along at home, you can find out more in the DDaT Capability Framework which is hosted on GOV.UK. 

 

And as it happens, we actually spoke to some content designers earlier in the year. So we're going to play a clip. 

 

----------

[clip begins]

Laura Stevens: 

So GDS is actually the home of content design in the government too as the term and the discipline originated here under GDS’s first Head of Content Design, Sarah Richards. And why do you think it came out of the early days of GDS?

 

Amanda Diamond: 

So really good question. And I think it is really useful for us to pause and reflect and look back sometimes upon this, because it's not, you know, content design, as you said, it came from, as a discipline it came from GDS.

 

So really, it only started to emerge around 2010, so 2010, 2014. So in the grand scheme of things, as a discipline, it is very young. And so it's still evolving and it's still growing. And so back in the early 2000s, before we had GOV.UK, we had DirectGov. And alongside that, we had like hundreds of other government websites. So it was, it was a mess really because users had to really understand and know what government department governed the thing that they were looking for. 

 

So what GOV.UK did was we brought websites together into a single domain that we now know of as GOV.UK. And that was a massive undertaking. And the reason for doing that was was simple. It was, it was to make things easier for users to access and understand, make things clearer and crucially to remove the burden on people to have to navigate and understand all of the structures of government. 

 

So back in the early days, GOV.UK, GDS picked I think it was around, I think it was the top 25 services in what was known as the Exemplar Programme. I think things like that included things that Register to Vote, Lasting Power of Attorney, Carer's Allowance. And so I think through that process, we, we, we discovered that it actually wasn't really about website redesign, it was more about service design. 

 

And that's where content design and service design, interaction design and user research kind of came together under this banner of user centred design because you can't have good services without content design essentially. 

[clip ends]

----------

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Alright on to our next quiz question. So at GDS, we like to talk about “build it once, use it often”, and are responsible for a number of amazing products and services as part of our Government as a Platform or GaaP offer. Many of our products have been put through their paces during the coronavirus response and have hit some impressive milestones in the last 12 months. 

 

I'm going to award 2 points in total. It's a 2-part question, so I'll ask the first part first. So how many messages had GOV.UK Notify sent as of the beginning of December?

 

[buzzer noise] 

 

Kit Clark: 

Is it two billion? 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Oooh, ok.

 

Yes, Notify has sent more than 2 billion messages as of the beginning of this month. As you buzzed in first, I will give you first right of refusal. How long did it take Notify to send its first and second billion messages? 

 

Kit Clark: 

I'm going to pass it over to Lou and see, see what she knows about Notify?

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Very gentlemanly.

 

Louise Harris: 

I'm really glad that Kit kicked this over to me because I remember seeing one of our colleagues, Pete Herlihy's tweet, which said that it took them a full 4 years to send the first one billion messages, but it only took them 6 months to send the second billion, which is an absolutely incredible achievement for Notify, and has shown just the kind of pace that that team's been working at. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Truly is an incredible number. But Notify has really had a big year. And Pete Herlihy actually shared some of Notify's story in our May episode of the podcast. Let's have a listen. 

 

----------

[clip begins]

Laura Stevens:

But to talk specifically about Notify, they, in the blog post it’s talking about this huge increase in numbers, like 2 million SMS messages were sent using Notify on a single day in March compared to the daily average of 150,000. I’ve also got a figure here of daily messages up as much as 600%, as high as 8.6 million a day. 

 

So what services are using Notify to help with the government’s coronavirus response?

 

Pete Herlihy: 

Yeah, there, so the, the increase in communication is obviously massive and needs to be. And one of the biggest users of Notify is the GOV.UK email service, and they, they do all of the email for people who subscribe to any content that the government publishes - so travel alerts for example, if you want to know can I take a flight to Namibia, here’s the guidance, or if there’s hurricanes coming through the Caribbean and these countries are affected, then I need to like push out information to say don’t go to these places, or whatever it might be. 

 

And those alerts are, you know, again potentially protecting people, life and property - they’re like really important. And there’s been a huge amount of travel advice and alerts being given, as, as you can imagine. So that’s been one of the biggest users. 

 

And then I think, from, from the health perspective there’s, I’ll just say NHS because there’s like various bits of the NHS that are working like ridiculously hard and fast to spin out new services really quickly, and these services are like just incredibly crucial right now. 

 

So the extremely vulnerable service, this is one where the government said if you are you know, in this extreme risk category you should stay at home for 12 weeks, and they’ve been texting this group of people.

 

There’s all the stuff around testing and results for testing, ordering home test kits, all these sorts of things. So there’s the very specific COVID response type stuff and that is, there is a significant volume of that that’s still ongoing.

 

It all came very quickly as well. You know this wasn’t a gradual ramp up over weeks and weeks to 5,6,700%, it was, it was almost overnight.

[clip ends]

----------

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Ok, I feel like this has been a bit too easy. So I thought about making the next 2 tricky and then I thought I was being too mean. So they are again connected questions, but they will be multiple choice this time. So again, if you buzz in for the first one, you get first dibs at the second question as well. So on 20 March, the GOV.UK Team shipped the Coronavirus landing page, which established a critical central source of guidance and information for people across the UK. But do you know how many days it took to go from concept to live? 

 

Was it A, less than 5 days, B, less than 12 days or C, less than 15 days?

 

[horn noise] 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Lou. 

 

Louise Harris: 

I think it was less than five days.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Alright. That is correct. 

 

Louise Harris: 

Wahoo.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

In fact it was only 4 and a half days. We had Markland Starkie and Leanne Cummings join us on the podcast in April to explain how we did this and what effect it had.

 

----------

[clip begins]

Markland Starkie: 

The thing that the landing page I suppose was able to do over and above the standard solution was really to bring together, in a more consolidated fashion, wider signposts to existing and new content across government. It also allows us the flexibility to redesign or extend or iterate on that landing page at pace, which we’ve been able to do in the, in the week since. So that’s based on ongoing research into the landing page and insights to move certain content around, add certain content that was missing in the first instance, and remove content that’s not working, all of those things.

 

Laura Stevens:

And was also, one of the reasons why it’s been able to be built quickly and iterated quickly, is we’re using other GDS tools that already exist, for example the GOV.UK Design System. Is that, was that, has been part of it as well? 

 

Markland Starkie:

Oh absolutely, yes. So without those things in place, like the Design System that you’ve mentioned, this would take weeks and weeks. So we’ve been able to take existing patterns, modify them where needed to. So being able to bring in elements whilst using existing patterns to really like kind of push it through at pace.

[clip ends]

----------

 

Kit Clark: 

I mean, I personally still find it incredible that things went from conception to actually delivering in such a short span of time. It’s incredible I personally think. And also when you're talking with such high stake products as well. You know, this is a time when the nation was looking for trusted sources of information about what they could do to keep themselves and their families safe. So it's just an incredible body of work to have done. And not only that, but also in true GDS style, they were keeping the user at the centre throughout the whole process. So I believe the Coronavirus landing page was the first landing page that we designed to be mobile first because we recognised that was where our users were going to be accessing that information. So in addition to delivering some incredible services and information at a pace we’ve probably never had to do before, we’re also continually iterating and innovating to give people the best possible experience on the site. I think there's so much to be proud of. And just really hats off to GOV.UK. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So you've earned yourself the right to answer the next question first. GOV.UK receives thousands upon thousands of visits every day, but in a week in March, it experienced a peak of how many visits? Was it A, 2 million, was it B, 67 million or was it C, 132 million?

 

Louise Harris: 

Ok, so it was back in March, so that is kind of peak COVID times. I think it's got to be 132 million. It must be. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

You are officially on a roll. 

 

Louise Harris: 

Wooo.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yes, the answer to the second question is 132 million. Although that is probably an underestimate as our analytics only count users who accept cookies that measure the website use. So the true figures are likely even higher, as Jen Allum explained in a blog post on the topic. So visit gds.blog.gov.uk to check that nugget out. 

 

Onto our next question. GOV.UK Pay has also had a busy year and last month we celebrated some recent milestones with them on this podcast. What were they? 

 

[horn noise]

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

All right, Lou.

 

Louise Harris: 

I think it's been a really exciting time for Pay over the last couple of months. And I know that we spoke to them on a recent podcast, so I think that the milestone you're looking for is that they've onboarded their 400th service. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Well, I'm sorry, Lou, but that was only half the answer I was looking for. 

 

Louise Harris: 

Oh no.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Kit, it's your chance. Do you want to score another half point maybe? 

 

Kit Clark:

I believe they processed half a billion pounds since their inception. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Well done. That is spot on. And together, those two factoids make a pretty sweet nugget - that was so cheesy. But yeah, it's, it's incredible. And they only started in 2015. So that's an amazing number of services and sum of payments to process. 

 

So my next question for you both is that we were also very busy on the GOV.UK Twitter account this year and saw a huge spike in users coming to us with queries and looking for support. That is something that I actually blogged about back in May. But can you tell me as a percentage how much our engagement increased on our posts? Was it 12,500%? Was it 150% or was it 700%? And for a bonus, can you tell me to the nearest 100,000 how many people are following the GOV.UK Twitter account right now? 

 

[buzzer noise]

 

Kit Clark: 

I want to go with the 12, 12 and a half. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

All right, Kit, I can confirm that you are right. Do you want to, do you want to try and punt for the bonus point? Do you reckon you've got that?

 

Kit Clark: 

Yeah, I’ll go for it. I think the GOV.UK Twitter account has got around 1.2 million people following it. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Oh, you are so close. I'm going to give you a half point. It's 1.8 million. And I have to say, it's been a real whirlwind of a year because of that. So we completely changed the way that we approach community management, responding to people. Lou I think you oversaw the project, what did you think? 

 

Louise Harris: 

Well, I think it certainly felt like we experienced a 12,000% increase in engagement, and I know that you, Vanessa, and so many of our colleagues over in Comms have been working really, really hard to make sure that we get back to the, frankly, thousands of people who come via the GOV.UK Twitter account every day looking for advice and signposting to guidance on the GOV.UK website. So it's been a phenomenal year. You've all done a phenomenal job and I think you've got lots to be proud of.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

That's very kind of you to say. I wasn't really fishing for compliments, but I'll take them anyway. 

 

You can actually find out a little bit about how we tackle that, as I mentioned in the blog post I wrote. But we've also put out our Social Media Playbook earlier this year. We've made an update and it just talks about the kind of things that we've been considering over the course of the year. It includes updates on accessibility, security and very important in this time of year, mental health.

 

Louise Harris: 

I think that's a really important point, Vanessa, because so often in digital comms, people think about the technology, but not the people behind that technology who are using it day in, day out. So I was really pleased when we were able to include that section on wellbeing in our GDS Social Media Playbook. And it's just another example of that GDS mentality of build once, use many. So we created that as a resource to share how we do things and what we're learning and what's working for us. And we just hope that that's a useful tool that our colleagues across government can put into practise as well.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

All right. I think we've got some points to pick up on this next question. Earlier this year, we launched the Data Standards Authority with our friends and counterparts over at ONS, which is the Office for National Statistics and DCMS, which is the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. You’ll hear from our former Director General Alison Pritchard now who explains a little bit more about the DSA. 

 

----------

[clip begins]

Alison Pritchard:

Government holds considerable volumes of data in a myriad of places. But often this data is inconsistent, incomplete or just unusable. If the government is going to realise the benefits data can bring, we'll need to fix the foundations. And one way of doing this is by focussing on data standards. 

 

GDS is leading a new authority, the Data Standards Authority (DSA), that focuses on making data shareable and accessible across government services. The metadata standards and guidance we published in August were our first deliverable. They cover what information should be recorded when sharing data across government - for example in spreadsheets - to assure it's standardised and easy to use. It's a step in quality assuring how government data is shared. Our focus on standards is one part of the bigger picture around better managing data to assure better policy outcomes and deliver more joined-up services to citizens. 

[clip ends]

----------

 

Vanessa Schneider:

So now, you know what the DSA is. Have your pens at the ready. I'm going to read out a series of letters that relate to the DSA that I would like you to unscramble. 

 

Louise Harris: 

Oooh, ok. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Alright. 

 

So it's T-E-M-A-T-A-A-D. Those are the letters, 8 of them. 

 

Louise Harris: 

I find these so difficult. I'm so rubbish at these. 

 

[buzzer noise] 

 

Kit Clark: 

I think I've got the letters written down right in my dyslexia mind might not be playing in my favour here but is it Data Team?

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Oh, I would love that. That is a great one. And it makes use of the right letters. It's not the answer I'm looking for unfortunately. It has to be about the Data Standards Authority.

 

Louise Harris: 

Oh, ok. I don't think I would have got this had Kit not unscrambled half of it. But if it's not Data Team, is it metadata? 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

We've got a winner here. That's right. I'm not going to repeat the letters. It definitely spells out, if you get them in the right order, metadata.

 

So Kit do you mind sharing with our listeners what metadata is? 

 

Kit Clark: 

I realised that I was going for speed over quality in that answer and Data Team is a bit of an overly simplistic answer. Metadata is correct me if I'm wrong, but actually data that provides insight into other data, it's a little bit inception. 

 

Louise Harris: 

Other Leo films are available. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Spot on. Yep, that's right. 

 

Last month, so that's November, we blogged about the Document Checking Service pilot that is running until next summer. And there's still a number of points up for grabs here.

 

So let's see who's been paying attention. What does the Document Checking Service let you do?

 

[buzzer noise]

 

Kit Clark: 

So the Document Checking Service is a project to see whether organisations outside government can use real time passport checks to build useful digital services. 

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Oh, I will score that as right. So it is great that we've got this pilot underway, especially considering that a lot of people are working remotely right now, given that individuals can provide their details without needing to go any place in person to prove their identity. 

 

All right. So now we're onto a topic that both of you've already broached. So I'm confident we're going to get some points to some people here. In May 2020, we celebrated Global Accessibility Awareness Day by running a series of webinars and talks to help prepare public sector organisations for a forthcoming accessibility regulations deadline. Can you tell me what deadline we were building up to?

 

[horn noise] 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

All right, Lou, point, a potential point for you.

 

Louise Harris: 

So the most recent deadline, and particularly the one that we were working to for Global Accessibility Awareness Day, or GAAD, would have been the 23rd September 2020, which was the date by which all existing public sector websites and intranets needed to be accessible. 

 

Vanessa Schneider:

 

Yep, that’s right.

 

To hear more about that, we are going to go back in time cheekily to January where we had Chris and Rianna on the podcast telling us a little bit more about public sector duty to accessibility. 

 

----------

[clip begins]

Laura Stevens:

I guess part of this is also thinking like why is it particularly important that government is a leader in accessible services. Like what, why is that so important?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

I mean as you said at the beginning, you know you don’t choose to use government, you have to use government. So you can’t go anywhere else. So it’s, it’s our obligation to make sure that, that everything is accessible to everyone. And it does have to be everyone, and especially those with disabilities, or needing to use assistive technology, tend to have to interact with government more. So we do have an obligation for that.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And I think if you think about it, these are public services. They’re online public services so they need to be able to use, be used by the public not exclusive groups. And I think that’s what it's all about. 

[clip ends]

----------

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So looking ahead, there is another accessibility regulations deadline coming up. When is it and what is it for? One point to award here. 

 

[buzzer noise]

 

Kit Clark: 

Is it the 23rd of June next year, so 2021? 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That's right. Yes. And what is the deadline for? 

 

Kit Clark: 

And I think it's all mobile apps to become compliant as well. So not just websites.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That is right. If you are worried about those deadlines, we have some great resources. You can find them on accessibility.campaign.gov.uk. That's not just restricted to the public sector. Accessibility is important to everyone. So please visit. We've got everything you need there. 

 

All right. So we are slowly but surely coming towards the last few questions. GOV.UK is built on the principle that you shouldn't need to know how the government works to use government services. Very prescient. But the way people interact online has changed a lot over the 8 years since GOV.UK launched. Services like shopping, banking or entertainment are increasingly personalised, and that is something that GDS wants to explore for citizens too.

 

In September, we were excited to share our future strategy for GOV.UK Accounts. We think this is important and exciting work that will make it simpler for citizens to interact with government to do the things they need to do. But can either of you tell me how many times will the average individual in the UK visit GOV.UK in a year? Just guess away please, folks, guess away. 

 

[buzzer noise]

 

Kit Clark: 

Is it 400? 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I like the optimism, but also in a weird way, that's pessimistic, isn't it? I'd say it's a, it's a 2- digit number.

 

Kit Clark: 

I doubted myself halfway through that. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

No worries. No worries. Try again. Like cut a zero.

 

Kit Clark: 

Is it around 40 times a year?

 

Louise Harris: 

I think this is a really difficult question because on the one hand, GOV.UK is such an important part of our national infrastructure. I mean, you can do so many things on GOV.UK, you know, you want to renew your car tax, you do it there. You want to check when the next bank holiday is, you do it there. But on the other hand, it's so easy to use that it's almost you're in, you're out. You got what you need. So often, like, I'm trying to think how often I maybe visit it. It's got to be at least like 4 or 5 times a month. So yeah, I think I would maybe land some where where Kit is. 

 

Vanessa Schneider:

That's a really good point, Lou. I think you've just overestimated it a little bit. We’ve done rough calculations and it looks like it’s more like 2 interactions with GOV.UK a month. So according to our rough calculations - it's something like 22 times a year. If you head over to the GDS blog you can see how we reached those numbers.

 

But yeah, it's really hard because obviously there's no competitor to government to provide the services that people need. It's not like you can register your car somewhere else. So we, we have to just try and make this kind of interface, the service, as easy as it can be. So it is painless, you know, that people aren't frustrated with that experience. 

 

And we've come to our final questions of the quiz and we're ending by testing your knowledge of some common words and phrases you’ll hear used in digital government. So a lot of people refer to us as GDS, which stands for the Government Digital Service. But how well do you know other acronyms that we've been throwing around all year long? 

 

Louise Harris: 

Oh, I think Kit is going to have the edge on me here because he does so much cross-government engagement. I think this is where I'm going to really fall down. 

 

Kit Clark: 

Fingers crossed.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

All right. So fingers on buzzers.

 

What is DDaT? 

 

[horn noise]

 

Louise Harris: 

I'm going to get in there with this and an easy, early one. So DDaT is Digital, Data and Technology. And I know that because during my round of welcome coffees on day one, that was the acronym that kept coming up. And people said, if you just get one acronym under your belt today, make it DDaT, because it's so important to the work that GDS does as the Head of the DDaT Profession.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

That is correct.

 

All right. Our next term that we're looking for is Retros.

 

Kit Clark: 

Does it stand for retrospective? 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

It's as simple as that. Indeed. So what happens at a retrospective, if you don't mind sharing? 

 

Kit Clark:

So a retro is I think it kind of does what it says on the tin really, where the group that's been working on a project will come together and essentially evaluate the good, the bad and the ugly of the work that's just being done to see what could be applied in the future, both in terms of positives as well, and things that could be improved in future, future pieces of work. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Nice. An iterative process. 

 

So obviously there's been a lot of change this year, but I think most of it has maybe been unanticipated. However, what we had been planning for this year is recruiting two leadership positions and I know everyone at GDS is excited about welcoming them in due course. One of them is for CEO of GDS and the other is GCDO. No pressure, given that they'll be your bosses and you don't know, they might even be listening. 

 

But can you tell me for one more point what GCDO stands for? 

 

[buzzer noise]

 

Kit Clark: 

GCDO stands for the Government Chief Digital Officer. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That is correct. Sorry Lou. 

 

Louise Harris: 

Missed out, too slow.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

The quiz has come to an end. So let me quickly tot up the scores.

 

I hope everyone listening did well and I hope we don't have to go to a tiebreaker. 

 

Louise Harris:

Oh, do you have a tiebreaker? 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Well, fact is, I won't need a tiebreaker because the winner is Kit. Well done. Congratulations to Kit and commiserations to Lou. You almost had it.

 

Louise Harris:

Kit, a worthy opponent. Very well played.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

So, Kit, finish us off. Why don't you share with us what your highlight of this year has been? Might be tough. It's been a crazy year, but I'm sure you've got something.

 

Kit Clark:

Yeah, it's been a bit of a funny one starting a role completely remotely. I think the the people that I work with have been a definite highlight, but also with this being my first role within the Civil Service and within the public sector, just the kind of confidence of standing on my own two feet and being more confident in the work that I'm doing and getting more responsibility with each passing month is, is a really good feeling. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That is such a lovely thing to say. I'll make sure to pass that on to your colleagues, because, yeah, I really enjoyed that. How about yourself Lou? 

 

Louise Harris: 

Well, I think similar to Kit it's all about the people, so I'm lucky enough to lead the team that's responsible for recording the podcast that you're listening to. And what you folks don't get to see or rather hear is just how much work goes into this each and every month. And of course, earlier this year, the team had to pivot, as so many of us did, to do things differently because recording in the way that we once did would not be safe or within the guidance. So I wanted to say a big shout out to Emily and to Vanessa. So Emily is our Producer, you never hear her here, but she's a big part of the podcast. And also to Laura Stevens, who's one of our old hosts and is now in another part of GDS. And to everybody else that's been involved, because it really is a huge challenge to do this. And I think they do a phenomenal job. So we hope you enjoyed listening and we hope to see you again in the New Year.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I don't want to sound like I'm gloating, but actually it's been a really good year for me. I've had a lot of great opportunities come up this year, maybe because of what's changed, you know, and working remotely. But I don't think it's a bad idea to not acknowledge it. I got to write for the blog for the first time at GDS. I presented to the entire organisation, which was simultaneously nerve wracking and thrilling. And I've been able to share my expertise among members of the devolved nations thanks to our National, International and Research Team. So there's a lot to reflect on really positively. I think all of that could not have been done without having a really good team backing me. So I think that's probably my highlight. 

 

Louise Harris: 

Oh, my God. So cute.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Thank you so much to our guests Lou Harris and Kit Clark for coming on today. We wish all of our listeners a happy New Year and look forward to sharing new episodes with you in 2021. You can listen to all of the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on Podbean. Goodbye.

 

Louise Harris: 

Bye folks. 

 

Kit Clark: 

Bye.

Government Digital Service Podcast #25: GOV.UK Pay

Government Digital Service Podcast #25: GOV.UK Pay

November 30, 2020

Laura Stevens:  

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I'm a Creative Content Producer here at GDS.

 

For this month's episode, we're going to be taking a look at GOV.UK Pay. GOV.UK Pay is the government's payment platform, letting service teams across the public sector take payments quickly and securely.

 

It's hit a few milestones this year as it's now used in more than 400 services in around 150 organisations. These services include applying for a Blue Badge, sending money to someone in prison and further afield in many British embassies around the world as part of the apply for an emergency travel document service. 

 

And since it started in 2015, GOV.UK Pay has processed more than 10 million payments to the total value of more than £537 million. And today, we're going to hear from users of GOV.UK Pay from central and local government, and we're also talking to Miriam and Steve from the GOV.UK Pay Team to hear about the product, its features and where it's going next.

 

So welcome, Miriam and Steve. Please could you both introduce yourselves and what you do on GOV.UK Pay. Miriam, first, please.

 

Miriam Raines: 

Hi, I'm Miriam Raines. I am a Product Manager on GOV.UK Pay.

 

Steve Messer: 

And hello, I'm Steve Messer. I'm also a Product Manager on GOV.UK Pay. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

I gave a brief introduction to GOV.UK Pay at the start, but I was hoping that you could both maybe explain a bit more about what it is and how it helps service teams across the public sector. So could you describe a bit more about the product, please?

 

Steve Messer: 

So the GOV.UK Pay is like a part of the Government as a Platform programme. And the basic idea behind that is that service teams across government and local government have to do a bunch of the same stuff in order to move users through transactional services. So loads of people have to pay for things inside of a service, people have to apply for things, they have to receive emails - that kind of stuff.

 

And there was an idea a while ago to turn those common problems and solve them with like components, common components. And that's where the products from Government as a Platform come from.

 

Miriam Raines: 

And there's sort of 2 parts to Pay: there's the bit that the paying user would see and they're one of our key groups of users. So these are the payment pages that will ask for your card details and give you sort of helpful guidance and helpful error messages, make it really easy to pay, they're really accessible, they're designed in line with the Service Standard and Design System and they're intended to be really easy to use and we're really regularly user testing those to give a sort of consistent, trusted, experienced for users who are paying online across the public sector.

 

And then there's the other part of Pay, which is for our other group of users, which is sort of public sector workers. So that is civil servants in central government and arm’s length bodies, it is police teams, it's finance people or digital teams in local government or the NHS. And this allows you to set up and manage your services, to take payments to really easily see what money you've had come in and make, issue refunds and track cases and applications and transactions. 

 

Again, very much designed to be as simple to use as possible. We don't want to make this something that needs like a whole lot of training. We want to be really intuitive. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Ok, so how does GOV.UK Pay work with a service?

 

Miriam Raines: 

So you can plug Pay into your service. So if you've already got an existing online service, you-your users are on that service, they're paying for their licence, they're paying for, they're, they're making their application. At the point in which they're ready to pay, they're transferred over to Pay, it should look really seamless for that user, and it doesn't feel like jolting that they're going somewhere unexpected. That user can then really easily pay and is redirected back to that service. So that's when we do it in a sort of fully automated, integrated way.

 

And we've also got options for teams that don't have digital services to really be able to take payments online instead of taking payments via a cheque or expecting someone to call up and pay over the phone, which we know can be time consuming, it could be quite expensive to handle those, you're much more restricted on the hours that you're able to manage those payments. So we've got those 2, those 2 options for different users. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And can you describe some of the services it's been used in? 

 

Miriam Raines: 

Yeah, we've got sort of a whole range of services. We've got some really big central government services right through to, so you mentioned, ours, we're open to local government, to NHS and police forces as well. So at sort of big central government level, we work with DVLA, we work with the Passport Office, so if you're making a digital application for passport, you'd be paying on GOV.UK Pay. We work some national services like Blue Badge. So we support a, lots of local authorities to handle Blue Badge payments. Right down to some really like small services that don't see a lot of transactions: we can have like yacht racing certificates. If you want to pay for an image of Field Marshal Montgomery at the National Archives, you can pay for that using Pay. It's quite, quite a variety. It's absolutely fascinating seeing all the things that government handles money for. 

Laura Stevens: 

So you mentioned there how some of the people who use it are from health and also from local government and central government, and I’ve got here as a brief history, we started off in 2015 with central government departments, then opened up to local government in 2017 and then in 2018 the health sector started using GOV.UK Pay. 

 

But I also wanted to talk about some of the successes that have happened this year, 'cause this year has been a big year for GOV.UK Pay. I see from Steve's weeknotes - every week there seems to be a new headline. So I just wondered if you could just take me through some of the highlights from this year in GOV.UK Pay.

 

Steve Messer: 

Yep. So I think it was a couple of weeks ago, so maybe mid-October when we had our 400th service go live, which was a good milestone. I think compared to last year, there were, I think there was something around about 100 live services. So we've seen a massive increase over the last 12 months, which is fantastic. It's good to see that the product is being used and talked about, but you know, it does mean that we have to work a bit harder now. So many more needs coming up, but that's fine, that's what we're here for. 

 

I think we've also just before then, so I think it was around about September, we passed a milestone in the value of payments that we've taken and we've now taken well over £500 million from users and passed that on to government departments. So you know half a billion pounds moving through the product is quite a big milestone because you know, a lot of people on the team remember when the first quid went through.

 

But it's also it's, it's, it's exciting to see the benefits that it can generate as well. So in our economic model, we know that it can save service teams, tens of thousands of pounds in procurement costs and the time that's associated with that. 

 

Miriam Raines: 

I think we've also seen, we've able to sort of respond quickly when teams have needed to get set up with services that related to sort of COVID support. You know we are one small part of that massive thing that those services are handling, but if we can make just even the payments bit of it that bit easier and take that burden off the team when they've got all these other things to work on and get people set up really quickly, that's felt really valuable.

 

Steve Messer: 

There was another episode just after the lockdown got lifted as well where like, no-one was applying for fishing licences because everyone was inside obviously. And then all of a sudden the, the, the break of the stay at home order was announced and people could go fishing again. And the number of fishing licence applications went from 0 to up to something like 2,000 per minute or something like that, within an hour. And it was just, it was fascinating to watch the dashboard just go, 'bleep, bleep, bleep, bleep' and you know things start happening. It was, it was a very cool. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And yes Steve, you actually set that up very nicely as well, because we're now going to hear from the Environment Agency and they are talking about fishing, so you've clearly got some friends over there.

-----

Haroon Tariq: 

I’m Haroon Tariq. I'm the Delivery Manager for the I Want to Fish Team, who are responsible for digital service that enables anglers to purchase fishing licences and submit catch returns.  

 

Laura Stevens: 

Can you tell me a bit more about what the service provides?  

 

Haroon Tariq: 

So the I Want to Fish Team looks after the service, which allows anglers to buy fishing licences which are legally required by law and also to submit catch returns, which basically means that if you go fishing for salmon and sea trout fishing, then we need to know where you fished, where you've caught, et cetera. So that's what I help look after.  

 

Laura Stevens: 

And so I wanted to just give our listeners some context for this service for anyone who doesn't regularly fish, and because the numbers involved are quite big, aren't they? I've got here a million licences are purchased a year.

 

Haroon Tariq: 

That's right, yeah, so so about kind of a million licences get purchased a year. I mean, just to give some context, in England alone, angling is worth 1.4 billion and supports at least 27,000 jobs. Angling is increasingly being used to address mental and physical health, social inclusion, which are key issues in society, especially pertinent in recent times with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And can you describe what the licence is? Is it something that's on your phone? Is it a physical licence or how does that work? 

 

Haroon Tariq: 

So the licence is basically provided via you get an email confirmation and you will typically get a paper card with that licence as well. And that is something that we're looking to review going forward, so watch this space! But at the moment, it's a legal requirement. If you get caught fishing in England or Wales and you don't have a fishing licence, then it is a prosecutable offence. So it is very important that anglers do have a fishing licence. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And how does GOV.UK Pay work with this service?

 

Haroon Tariq: 

So GOV.UK Pay is our kind of payment services platform. So we use it to process online card payments for fishing licences. We are one of the larger volume services that use Pay. So we process between 2 to 5000 transactions per day.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And you mentioned it earlier, and also from my research you mentioned about how more people are fishing now with coronavirus with the lockdown when it lifted over summer.

 

So from my research, I’ve seen that when lockdown lifted in summer, there was a huge increase in people who wanted to fish, 6x in fact an increase with a peak of 1,575 applications per hour after the ease of restrictions, when there had been no higher than 252 applications per hour in the previous 30 days. So how did GOV.UK Pay help you process these?

 

Haroon Tariq: 

So when lockdown restrictions eased, licences sales are shot through the roof and the service suitably with the additional load of anglers purchasing licences over a short period of time. This is made really easy due to the close collaboration between our internal teams at I Want to Fish and the GOV.UK Pay teams, making enhancements to service to cope with the surge in demand for fishing licences. 

 

GOV.UK Pay was very good in working with us to understand in terms of the potential spike in peak of kind of people buying fishing licences. So effectively, we made the systems even more resilient than they already were. So they are very resilient anyway, just to kind of try and support that additional surge in demand. 

 

And I'm pleased to report that it did work really well. As you've quoted in some of your figures there, sales figures for fishing licences kind of hit the roof when Boris did kinda ease exercise restrictions back at the beginning of the summer. So, yes, it was very well kind of work together and it worked well for us.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And so what features does the Environment Agency make use of GOV.UK Pay in both now with coronavirus, but also all the time? 

 

Haroon Tariq: 

So I think one of the key benefits of working with GOV.UK Pay as a kind of payment services provider is that it allows us to benefit from platform enhancement. So what I mean by that is as the platform evolves and iterates, then we can kind of gain benefit from that. 

 

So one of those examples is the recent card masking feature, which basically masks the card payment details when they’re entered. One of the other features that kind of is out of the box that we use is the transaction reporting, so we can review kind of transaction volumes and look to kind of forecast any potential peaks, such as you've mentioned, in light of Covid and exercise restrictions being eased.

 

One of the other features that I quite like is that if there are any production instances that occur on the service, we have the access to a live issue monitoring alert system, which allows us to track what those are, keep abreast of any updates and help us kind of predict any volumes going forward.   

 

Laura Stevens: 

And looking forward with the future of your service, how can GOV.UK Pay help you with that? 

 

Haroon Tariq: 

So we've got lots of exciting stuff coming up on the service for us, on I Want to Fish, which you'll have to wait and see. But GOV.UK Pay is our kind of payment platform provider as it kind of continues to try and add enhancements on the service. We will look to kind of gain the benefit from those as we move forward. 

 

So I've already mentioned about the card masking feature. I'm sure there will be other benefits such as this that will look to glean and take forward. So I think that's one of the key things for us, is having a payment service provider that can iterate and move forward and kind of give us the benefit without us having to kind of spend time and research and money in that area. So with the GOV.UK Pay Team, it's very good. We've worked well together and look forward to working for in the future.  

 

Laura Stevens: 

And I'll be playing this back to the GOV.UK Pay Team during the podcast, is there anything you'd want to say to them? Anything, any requests you want to put in for any of these new features? 

 

Haroon Tariq: 

Firstly to say thank you, we've kind of created a really good partnership with all the people that we work with, with the team and very much going to continue the good work. We've got some exciting stuff coming up. We're looking at different payment methods, which we're going to be working with GOV.UK Pay going forward on. So watch this space, but for now thank you. 

----------

Steve Messer: 

That's just really nice - it's so lov-lovely to hear. That was wonderful. 

 

Miriam Raines: 

One, one thing I thought was really good and really interesting to hear about that sort of idea of partnership. I think we really do try and work very closely in partnership with our services. We sort of regularly talking to services about how they're finding it, you know what's working well, what's not working well, and really involve all of our users in shaping that future roadmap. So when we're talking about releasing new features and make sure that functionality is available, and really just sort of like upgrades that get sort of passed through to the teams without them having to do any sort of additional work - all of those things that we build in our roadmap are really based on these conversations with users that come out of the, the feedback we get from them and trying to understand their needs and expand the way that Pay can support that. 

 

Steve Messer: 

Yeah, that's, that's the cool thing, really, and that's, I think that's one of the reasons I get up in the morning as a Product Manager, is that the job is never done. There's always more to be doing. So whilst we've created a product which allows government to take card payments pretty easily and simply and then manage those, there's always going to be some other problem around the corner that people need solved. And as you hear from Haroon there, they're sort of looking at other payment methods in the future. Things that were interesting to explore with people and looking at the moment.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And Miriam, to quote your words back at you, you along with Mark Buckley, blogged about the use of GaaP products with Coronavirus, and in there you said “some services needed to stop taking cheques or reduce reliance on call centres as offices close and call centres have fewer staff. GOV.UK Pay has been able to help these services start taking payments within a day and keep important services running.” So what I wanted to do is I want to play a clip from Home Office who, like the Environment Agency, are a long established user of GOV.UK Pay to hear about their journey with GOV.UK Pay. 

------

Lisa Lowton:

Yeah, so it's Lisa Lowton. I'm from the Home Office and I am the Head Functional Lead for our ERP solution - and the ERP solution being the Enterprise Resource Planning Tool that we, we look after all of our HR and finance activities.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Lisa, I know you've worked in the Civil Service for quite a long time, particularly in finance and project work, could you just give us a brief description of your career? 

 

Lisa Lowton: 

Yeah, sure. So my career started, I was an accountant in the private sector and decided I wanted to change. And an advert came up to work in the Home Office as an Immigration Caseworker - so that's where I started.

 

Done a number of years as an Operational Caseworker and then moved into the project space. And that slowly moved me then back into finance and looking at ERP [Enterprise resource planning] systems again. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And as well as obviously being in the Civil Service for while, you've also been involved with GOV.UK Pay for a while I believe since its inception back in 2015 with, under Till Wirth at the time, the then Product Manager. So can you tell me how you used the GOV.UK Pay over the years?

 

Lisa Lowton: 

Yeah sure. So, yeah, I met Till 5 years ago it was, at a Civil Service conference down in London, when we were allowed to travel at that point. So, so Till and I met when he was doing a stall and he was talking through payments and, and how things were going to be done in one place for government, and, and I kind of really enjoyed speaking with Till and I was quite interested. 

 

It was literally by chance that about 4 or 5 months later, where I was working at the time, the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), decided to look at developing a product in-house and that would mean an element of payments that would be taken - so straightaway Till came to mind. So that literally was the-the start of the journey really. 

 

So that was the DBS Basic Disclosure Service and they use all 3 of the GDS products - so Verify, Notify and Pay. So we were the first ones to go live with that. And it took around 2 years and it went live in January ‘18. And Gov.Pay was obviously a key element of that. So it was really nice to see from inception, them conversations in Civil Service Live to then actually it rolling out into that service - so that was where it started. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And more recently, I know coronavirus has, like for many of us, pretty much all of us, have forced you to change some of the way you take payments on services. So can you explain a bit more about this service and how GOV.UK Pay has helped you with that shift? 

 

Lisa Lowton: 

So we were looking at the, the pay portal to move all our invoice payments to. So, so currently our card payments were, are taken through another provider, and they're kind of a shared service centre as such, and, and card payments are actually took through manual card terminals, which was, obviously means the-the agents having to obviously be in the office at the time, and also the number of issues that the guys faced with their manual card terminals including lack of, lack of Wi-Fi, that type of thing was-was also an issue. 

 

So we were already looking to move the service to Pay. It was just by chance that COVID came along and meant that there was a real risk that the, the guys in Wales potentially might not be able to be in the office, which meant that we would, we would then have a bit of a gap as to how we would take payments for invoices that needed to be paid over that period, and who, who, people prefer to pay by card as well. So so that was the opportunity that we had. 

 

And therefore we-we had a conversation with your development team as to look how we could use a payment link in that situation. We put it through our internal governance - our DDaT [Digital, Data and Technology] governance - who were really supportive of us in-in getting this up and running. And it took around about 5 weeks and we managed to, to get it up and running to be able to provide that as, as a backup service should, should the team in Newport not be able to be in the office.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And you mentioned payment links there, and I know this is a feature that's been really helpful to you. Could you explain a bit more about what a payment link is and how it helped you? 

 

Lisa Lowton: 

Yes, sure. So as I spoke about before the, the COVID response was how, how are we able to give customers the way to make a payment without having to, to call the call centre for example, or where the call centre can't take that payment.

 

So the payment link was,was really handy so that we were able to put on, counter the IVR - so the telephone solution, where we can say, you know, we can't take a payment right now so if you go to this GOV.UK and, and provide that information, and also we've put it on a number of, or we are about to put it on a number of potentially e-ma, at the bottom of emails that, that go out from the shared service centre, as well as the, the kind of the longer term view of putting it on the back of an invoice, and also on some of the, the penalties, which is also where we need to add that payment linked to as well.  

 

So just on the payment linked functionality - really easy to set up, very quick. Obviously the, we had some thinking internally as to how we make sure people provide the right information, because at this point, weren't quite sure how, how the data would come in. And so, so that was really easy to set up. And there was, you know, we did some internal reviews and to be able to make the changes like we did so quickly, I think there was absolutely astonishment because normally when you make changes on any type of, of portal, it normally takes a number of weeks, a number of months, and normal has a pound sign on it. 

 

And that wasn't the case. It was all, it was all at our fingertips and we were able to change it there and then in the sessions that we were having with the internal business colleagues as well. So that, that was really good.  

 

So we've been going for 5 months now, and again, this is not been advertised anywhere specific, this was only set-up for the, for people who weren't able to make a payment when they called up - to date we've had just under £200,000 of, kind of, revenue coming in. So which is great, which, which has come through a portal that would never existed 5 months ago.

 

So, so we've got to remember kind of you know, some of our customers you know don't want to, don't want to pay, you know some of these are penalties, and, you know, like any, anything like that, you, you potentially do struggle to, to get the income in. But it does show either how easy the solution is and how people are, the usability of it is really good. Because therefore, you know, we've got that promise to pay and you know, over 90%, which is, which is superb. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And what other features have you used?

 

Lisa Lowton:

I guess one of the advantages of going to GOV.Pay was that obviously as the payments industry develops, GOV.Pay are absolutely there at, at the frontend of this. And a recent example, well maybe not that recent but you know, 12 months ago when Apple and Google Pay we're, we're very much kind of hot on the heels of, of how people want to pay. That was something that, as part of where I spoke about before the Disclosure and Barring Service, Basic Service, that's something that we wanted to use. Again it gives people the opportunity to you know, more, more opportunity to pay through however they want to pay.

 

I was really surprised, I don’t know why I was surprised, it was just a really good example of the where you guys had built the technology, and all I did was click a switch and that was it. And then my customers were then able to pay by Apple and Google Pay. And, and that for me was a real key benefit because it was something similar that we were looking at in another area of the service, which potentially would have cost that organisation quite a lot of money. So that is, that is something that I'll always remember that first kind of, I suppose it's an enhancement as such, of how that work was done you know, in GDS and we were all able to benefit from it. And that's something that I want to kind of make sure that people are aware of these types of things and the benefits of moving to GOV.UK Pay. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And when I'm playing this clip back to the GOV.UK Pay Team, is there anything you'd want to say to them, or any requests you have or anything else? 

 

Lisa Lowton: 

Ooh..so, so firstly it is a massive thank you. And I guess it's, it's just what I suppose, you know, when I think about how, how can we make this service better, we've got to get the word out there. So things like this podcast, you know other, other advertisements that we can do, that I can do as a department to try and sell this service will only help longer term, and will also mean that you know the guys back in the GDS office, or in the, or in their living room or wherever they are now, understand that the important job that they do for central government. 

 

It's very easy for people in the back office not to understand the impact of, of the front line. And I can give you an example really, a quite recent example of conversations that we're having with our colleagues at the border who want to be able to make sure they've got access to see information 24 hours a day, you know, our operation does not close down in the Home Office, it absolutely stays open 24 hours a day. 

 

And we are now working with them and using the Pay, using the Pay portal to provide them some information to which they, they're over the moon with. We're still early days. But just, you know, just for me to hear these guys tell me the impact of having this information 24 hours a day was, was quite emotional if, if I'm being honest, and sometimes people like ourselves and people in GDS might not see that front end impact, but it absolutely does, it does make a difference. And we need to make sure that we always keep that in mind - is that why we're doing it.  

 

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Miriam Raines: 

I'm pretty happy to hear Lisa's happy. Lisa's been such a great advocate for Pay, and you know, as she said we've been working with her you know, for the last 5 years through various, through her various jobs that have taken her to different parts of central government. As Pay has grown and changed and been thinking about the new things that we can offer, and hopefully you know, sounds like she's had some benefits from, from using us and from the things we've been able to add, but we've also gained hugely from like getting her insight into what it is like to be a finance person in central government. Like how, how can that work better, what are the problems they've got, what are the things that we can help with to make that easier. So she's been really great with her time sort of sharing that information with us. 

 

Steve Messer: 

So that's one of the things that really excites me, is thinking about these different scenarios that people are in when they do need to pay government. So they might be on their way to work, on the bus using their phone, and they don't really want to like have the hassle of sort of going through a government service really. They have to do it. But knowing that they can just like coming along to GOV.UK, go to a service, fill in a form, use Pay to pay us, and then get on with the rest of their life quickly, simply and easily, I think is the value of what we do.

 

I sort of did actually wonder what are the different devices you can use to pay government on? Because not everyone has access to the latest smartphone or a laptop or a computer or that sort of thing. So I had a bit of a play using some devices that might be more common that are a bit easier to get hold of, like a really old Kindle. So it's nice to know that you know anyone, no matter their digital access or requirements, they should be able to just pay government and get on with their life.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Any other devices or just the Kindle? I know we've had, we've heard before that GOV.UK's been accessed by a PlayStation, services have been used on that as well. 

 

Steve Messer: 

Yeah, PlayStations, games consoles, I've used it on a TV as well, that's like quite common. People have smart TVs but might not have a smartphone. So you can use it on that. I don't know what else I've tried it on. That's it - I need to try it on the very first Web browser and see if it works on there, I'm hoping it does. That's a bit of time travelling if you do that, it's quite fun.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And yes, and before we hear from our final clip, which is from Surrey County Council, I wanted to talk about local government. And I wanted to talk about the collaborative project with local authorities and the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government or MHCLG. Could you tell me a bit more about that, what it was and what you found out about it? 

 

Miriam Raines: 

So, yeah, MHCLG had set up the Local Digital Collaboration Unit and GDS has been working very closely with them to support that. They had a fund that local authorities could apply for to help solve common problems. And so local authorities could form groups, partnerships with other local authorities looking at the same problem, apply for money to investigate that either at sort of a discovery level or sort of alpha level if they'd already done some work on this in the past. 

 

And there were a group of local authorities led by North East Lincolnshire that included a few other local authorities of different sizes and different sort of geographic places around the country, who wanted to look at how they could make GOV.UK Pay easier to use and make it more sort of widespread within local government. They saw there was an opportunity there, but they wanted to understand you know, why wasn’t it necessarily being used more, how could they check that it was meeting the needs of local government as well as central government and sort of understanding the case for using Pay. So we worked with them January 2019. And it was really, really interesting.

 

We travelled round to lots of different local authorities. We watched finance teams and caseworkers sort of doing their jobs, what the tools they were using at the moment. Try to understand what the current payment platforms that they use, what were sort of good things about that, what were the pain points around that, how Pay might be able to address it now with the functionality we had at the time and what things you might need to do to enhance Pay. So again, basing our future roadmap entirely on the feedback that we've got from users, making it much easier to use and thinking about some specific issues for local, for local government as well. And I think it's been really beneficial so we've been able to do some of the changes that we looked at. 

 

Steve Messer: 

Yeah, that would be great actually, if everyone could go to our website and look at the roadmap and just let us know if something's not on there or definitely let us know if something's on there and you're excited about it. This kind of feedback is what helps us make Pay and make it work for people.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And now we're going to hear from a local government user from Surrey County Council. 

-------

David Farquharson: 

So my name's David Farqharson and I work at Surrey County Council and I'm a Developer who works in our integration team, which is a team that is specifically concerned with system integration. And part of that integration is the online payment solution.

 

Laura Stevens:

Could you tell me how you came across GOV.UK Pay?

 

David Farquharson:

Yes. So my first exposure to GOV.UK Pay was when we implemented our Blue Badge scheme. And as part of that, there's a payment that has to be made. 

 

We implemented a government solution as part of the end-to-end system, incorporated the GOV.UK Pay platform for online payments and the GOV.UK Notify for the messages and notifications. So that was my first exposure to it. 

 

And as we implemented it, I was quite impressed by what it was offering. And so decided to do an assessment of whether it would be a solution that we could look at for the whole council online payment strategy. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

So yes, Surrey came across GOV.UK Pay through the Blue Badge. I also wanted to ask about how GOV.UK Pay helped Surrey County Council during coronavirus. On a blog post on the GDS Blog there was a quote from Surrey County Council talking about a service that was set up in one day using GOV.UK Pay. 

 

David Farquharson: 

Yes. I mean, we had a particular example where we needed to take for COVID-19, we needed to take payments for a crisis fund. So it was a sort of fund set up where people could donate money to help people that were in immediate problems due to the COVID-19 issue. And as a result, we needed to get something up as quick as possible, to start taking that money. And so we used the payment links function that is provided by GOV.UK Pay, which is extremely quick way of getting up a payment page and taking those payments online. So that was the particular one that we were probably talking about. 

 

But since COVID-19, we've already set up a number of additional live services, some using the payment links and some using more sort of in-depth integration. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And so what features does GOV.UK Pay have that make it helpful to you as somebody working in local government? 

 

David Farquharson: 

The GOV.UK Pay platform underpinned fully by the accessible rest APIs [application programming interfaces], which enable developers and local authorities like ourselves to build custom add-ons and to access data and information from the system and embed it in some of our external applications. And also allows us to do things like journaling for our ledger, by accessing the APIs. And the documentation of support for developers is excellent - it's accessible on the website so if anyone went to your website and looked, there's a documentation section and it's excellent on the APIs and how to use them. In fact, on the whole on the whole admin site and how to integrate it, it's very good for that. And the support both online from the call logging system and telephone supports has also been very good and responsive to our needs. 

 

We've also actually been in personal discussion with some developers from your team, and they're very willing to speak to us and listen to our requirements. And we've actually, in conjunction with them, requested some additions and amendments that they have actually now developed and put live. 

 

Another major advantage is how quickly it is to set up a test service on the admin site, it literally takes minutes. You can start, your developers can start carrying out some initial developments and proof of concepts very quickly. So we were able to do that. And it fits in with an agile development approach as well. So you can quickly get something out very quickly, show your, your customers so they immediately get an idea of what it is they're going to be getting. 

 

We've touched on the payment feature, but again, that's a very nice feature. If you are looking at taking online payments that you don't need to integrate with another system and are fairly simple in their nature, you can set that up literally in a day, you could have something up and have a new URL that you can put out for people to take to make online payments. 

 

We also found that each service set up, so we at Surrey, we've got 50 plus payment services that take online payments and that's growing all the time as well. So each one of these we call a different service. So they could be completely different things from highways to education to music tuition. So a lot of different services involved. And each of those is set up as a separate service in the GOV.UK Pay admin site. And you can then control the security and the access to those services. If you will use the admin site and using the admin site for your users, you can control the use of security so that they only see the service they're responsible for. And so in the council where we've got a very disparate level of services and of users, that's was very useful to us.

 

So, I mean, that's just an example of the advantages. But that’s why we’ve changed our whole strategy, which is to move over to the GOV.UK Pay platform.

 

Laura Stevens: 

If GOV.UK Pay didn't exist, how would that have impacted your work at Surrey?

 

David Farquharson:

We possibly would have had to have built a similar thing ourselves. 

 

So it's probably saved us a lot of our own in-house development work, but would also have been specific to Surrey County Council and one of the things we're looking at with this is the hope that this might lead to more of a standardised local government approach as well. We've been in talks to local authorities because then we can share our experiences. We can look for joint improvements rather than working independently and developing separate solutions. And I think there is a benefit in terms of costs going forward for local authorities to do that. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

If any of our listeners are from local government and want to know a bit more, how would they get in touch with you?

 

David Farquharson: 

If anyone wanted to follow up on any of the comments I've made or ask us how at Surrey we've approached some of these issues, I'll be more than happy to talk about that. I think the easiest would be to contact me on my work email address, which is david.farquharson, which I better spell F for Freddie a r q u h a r s o n. S for sugar, s o n. At Surreycc.gov.uk [david.farquharson@surreycc.gov.uk] 

 

So just drop me an email and I'll either get back in the email or I can contact the person that's I’d be more than happy to do it.

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Miriam Raines: 

Surrey have been such good supporters of, of Pay and we've, it's good to hear they were saying we've worked really closely with them: we've done like a couple of really useful research sessions with them. And yes, as you mentioned, we were able to release some changes pretty recently based on feedback that they'd given us. And yeah, that's really, it's just really positive. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And would you say there, where, what David was talking about the sort of experience of GOV.UK Pay - is that typical for a local government user of GOV.UK Pay?

 

Miriam Raines: 

Yeah. So it's actually interesting, we've got some local government users who do sort of split everything out so they've got a different service in Pay for every different type of transaction and then they can really carefully manage the nuances sort of each of those services and who's got access to it - and in some ways that can make sort of, if it works for their process, it can make finance and reconciliation easier. And that was one of the things that we were doing research with Surrey about. 

 

There are other teams where they just have one service in Pay, and they run absolutely every single thing through it. They've got other ways of handling reconciliation and they like to sort of just, keep, keep it quite simple with their sort of interaction with with Pay. So it will depend on how teams use it.

 

Laura Stevens: 

I was thinking about how GOV.UK Pay will develop next. So we've talked a lot about the various features since it's launched and there seems like there's been lots of things added and has adapted with different users, different features. So what are you thinking about looking forward in the, in your roadmap? What's, what's on the horizon? 

 

Steve Messer: 

So there's quite a few things, because the payments industry has changed quite a lot since the internet came along. You know it's not only online payments that have been enabled. Some exciting - if I can say that, regulation, exciting regulation, does it exist? Yes - exciting regulation went through in 2017 I think, which is open banking regulation. And this, what this does is it sort of opens up the way that you can transact with services by using your bank account.

 

Previously it would have been like quite expensive to build these kinds of things, but now there is a way for any kind of online service to integrate with an open banking solution and then provide information from your bank account to that service. And also to, to send money as well. So there’s quite exciting opportunities there where for people who don't have access to a card maybe could pay by bank account, which in most scenarios is quicker and might be simpler for them.

 

I think we also want to be looking at how we can make it cheaper for government services to use GOV.UK Pay. We are pretty competitive and we work with the market rather than against the market, which means that you know services can save a lot of money. But again, there are ways that we can really reduce these transaction costs and make it quicker and easier for service teams to convince their governance to start using Pay. 

 

Miriam Raines: 

And sort of related to that, we've also been working very closely with Government Finance Function and Government Shared Services. So we're looking at what their aims and ambitions are for sort of better efficiency or sort of automation in those processes in government. And then we looking at how Pay can sort of support that, how we can be the vehicle to enable them to roll out these new sort of finance standards or data standards and make it easier to have that sort of that same technology used and reused across, across government. So that's really, that's really interesting - and Lisa has been very helpful in that. She's been very involved from Home Office as well. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And I guess out of all those plans, what excites you both the most coming up in the next few months to work on GOV.UK Pay?

 

Steve Messer: 

I'm quite excited about so, we do offer a Welsh language service for our services. And so if you're a Welsh language speaker, you can go from start to finish with a completely Welsh journey until Pay sends you an email confirming your payment - that's the only bit we haven't done yet. So I'm quite excited to work on that because it means I get to use the people I live with as a test group because they all speak Welsh. It might make the Christmas dinner quite interesting.

 

Miriam Raines: 

Steve's learning Welsh, so Steve can practice too. 

 

Steve Messer: 

Yeah, I can show myself up in how poor I am at my Welsh.

 

Miriam Raines: 

I think we've been thinking about, I don't know if I'm allowed to get excited about invoicing, but I think I might be excited about invoicing. One of the things that Lisa was talking about in her service was they're using Pay for invoices. And definitely we have teams that are using Pay in that way, they might be using our API integration, more likely they're using that payment links functionality. But there's a lot of ways that we could probably make that better and tailor it a bit more to how people share invoices, receive invoices, want to check the invoices have been paid.

 

So I think there's some work there that we can do because that can be quite expensive to handle in government, it can be quite manual, it can be a bit awkward for users: lot of time they might have to make, you know call up and pay over the phone or something. So we're looking at how we could do that. So that's pretty something we might look at in the, in the New Year. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Fab. And if I've been listening and I want to find out more or I want to get in touch with you, how is best to do so? 

 

Steve Messer: 

So probably go to our website, which is payments.service.gov.uk. There you'll be able to find information on what Pay is, how to get started, our roadmap that shows you what we're working on now, next and things that we're exploring. It also has a page that can allow you to get in touch with us. You can contact the support team or get in touch with us to tell us about anything you're excited about. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

So yes, thank you both and thank you to all our guests for coming on the podcast today. This is actually my last episode as I'm moving onto a new role in GDS so it's been great to leave on a, such a great product. And you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on PodBean. So thank you again both. 

 

Miriam Raines: 

Thanks, Laura. 

 

Steve Messer: 

Thank you. That was great.

Government Digital Service Podcast #24:Celebrating Black Excellence in Tech

Government Digital Service Podcast #24:Celebrating Black Excellence in Tech

October 27, 2020

Vanessa Schneider:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Vanessa Schneider and I'm Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS. Like previous episodes, this one will also be recorded via Hangouts as we're all working remotely now. 

 

Today's podcast topic is Black Excellence in Tech as part of the GDS celebrations to commemorate Black History Month. The GDS Black Asian Minority Ethnic Staff Network at GDS have planned a calendar of events for the third year running. This year, many of the events are themed around Black excellence. To learn more about this, particularly in the tech sector, I'm joined by 3 guests: Samantha Bryant, Matthew Card and Chuck Iwuagwu. Sam, could you please introduce yourself to our listeners? 

 

Sam Bryant: 

Hi, everybody. I am Samantha Bryant, or just Sam, and I am an Associate Delivery Manager on the GovTech Catalyst Team, and also one of the co-founders and co-chairs of the GDS BAME Network.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Awesome. Thank you, Sam. Chucks. Do you mind introducing yourself?

 

Chucks Iwuagwu: 

Thanks Vanessa. Hi everyone. My name is Chucks Iwuagwu. I'm Head of Delivery in GOV.UK. And before becoming Head of Delivery on GOV.UK, I was Head of Delivery on the Verify programme.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Great. Thank you, Chucks. Finally Matthew, could you please introduce yourself? 

 

Matt Card: 

Hi, I'm Matthew Card. I'm a Software Engineer, also a Senior Leadership Team Advisor at the BBC. I also run a motivational platform called Release D Reality, and I've started a Black tech network group as well. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Fantastic. Thank you, Matthew. So from what it sounds like, you all carry out important roles in digital, data and technology areas of your organisations. Would you mind sharing how you've gotten to the positions in your careers that you are in currently? Let's kick off with Sam, maybe. 

 

Sam Bryant: 

Ok, so I didn't come into the Civil Service thinking that I would land a tech role. And my initial idea, plan wasn't to be in the Civil Service for ages, but having found a tech role that is a non-techie tech role, I literally like found my niche, and that really encouraged me to stay in the Civil Service for longer. So I moved from the Cabinet Office to Government Digital Service, where I developed and progressed to being an Associate Delivery Manager. And I absolutely love the role. And also because I'm super passionate about D&I [diversity and inclusion], I formed the BAME Network here at GDS.

 

I would say the most important thing about my role was just like being surrounded by like-minded people. So at GDS, there are a lot of people who are in the tech organisation but not necessarily holding tech roles. And so before I became a DM, I was able to liaise with different managers in GDS, get an understanding for the work that they do, and it really aligns with my natural skill sets. And because I had a natural love for technology anyway, it, those two things aligned. So that's how I became an Associate Delivery Manager. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That's really cool to hear. Do you mind sharing if you've had any experience outside of the public sector, outside of the Civil Service maybe?

 

Sam Bryant: 

I have, but not in a technical role. So I've worked for, I would call them like e-commerce tech companies like Groupon. And prior to that, I did some teaching, like all of my other jobs prior to this were very diverse and not necessarily aligned with what I do right now. But I also did a degree in English, which is really helpful when you're in a tech role, because communication is key, whether we're thinking about how we make our communications accessible, and when when we think about how we communicate with all stakeholders or how we communicate tech things to non-techies.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That's really great to hear, yeah. It's, I think it's probably really important to hear also that you can do a variety of things before you come into the tech sector and that it's not, you know, a waste of time, perhaps. Chucks, do you mind perhaps sharing with us how you came to GDS and to the position that you are in now? 

 

Chucks Iwuagwu: 

I'm a bit like Samantha in, in the sense that I didn't set out in my career to work in, in tech and certainly to work in IT project management and in delivery leadership. This might surprise you, but my background is in biochemistry. I-I did a Master's in pharmacology and subsequent degrees in, in, in chemistry and, and making, manufacturing drugs, and got involved in clinical research. But it was actually my work in clinical research that led me to tech. I was involved in a clinical research project, and was particularly involved in writing specifications for the development of the application, the IT system, that we used in clinical research. And that was what sort of introduced me into business analysis and working with developers and those who write codes. I just made that transition from working in that sector into - I really enjoyed, you know, creating, you know, applications, IT systems. From then on, I moved to work initially for the health department in Scotland for NHS National Services Scotland. And then through that to several local authority. And, you know, ended up in GDS exactly about a year.

 

I-I became an agile enthusiast about 11 years ago, became a scrum master 10 years ago, and started working in agile scrum and have been working in agile delivery, scrum, kanban, different flavours of agile, for about 10 years. I was, just so people know, I'm an independent consultant, and working as an independent consultant in an agile space have enabled me to meet some of the cleverest people I've ever met in my life. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That sounds like a really wonderful experience. Well, finally, we turn to Matt, obviously we've heard from perspectives from people who work in the Civil Service, but the BBC is obviously also a very big institution in British lives - so it'd be really cool to hear how you wound up working there as you do now. 

 

Matt Card: 

So what, I, so I did the traditional route. I started out not knowing what I wanted to do. So I took a like a gap year and I was just working in retail for a while, and then I decided to go back to university and I picked, I wanted to do comp-something in computers. I found myself on a computer all the time trying to work things out. So I thought let me go and learn how to work, to do stuff. I did a sandwich course - so one year was out in, in the real world. And then I came back, completed the degree, and then I found a job in London at a, a small company. And then I got made redundant out of my first job, cried my eyes out, you know, because, you know when you get your first job and you're like, 'oh, this is amazing'. Because I didn't know what to do before I found out what I wanted to do. And, you know, so I thought, I thought this was it. And then I got made redundant. 

 

And then I was looking for another job, and then I found the BBC - it was really interesting because I didn't actually want to work at the BBC because I, of the perception of what I thought it was going to be like. So I went for the interview and it blew my mind - it was like 'wow' - because it was so different, it was like all open plan, like loads of floors and you could look out on the, on the whole building and everything is like, 'wow, this is amazing'. And then the second interview that I had the, the person who interviewed me just said, 'oh, so tell me, what's your favourite site?' And I was like, 'wow, this is a really interesting question'. So I was like YouTube - ‘cause it was 2009 so it's like YouTube was massive - and I was like just everybody can share their content, it's just amazing, you know? And he was like, 'right. It's a really good answer'. He asked me some other questions, and then I got the job, and I've been at the BBC ever since. I went, I started in London and I moved up to Manchester with the BBC, and I'm here now.  

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That sounds like it was a really positive experience. Do you think that doing your degree was something that made you more successful in your career? 

 

Matt Card: 

Yes and no. I think that my skills outside of, of the computer science field has really helped me. Like because, as I said, I worked in retail for a very long time, so my customer service skills really helped me because, at the end of the day, the users are customers, right? You just have to explain and you have to have difficult conversations with people to say, 'you can't have that right now'. You know that's got nothing to do with tech - that's just you can't have that right now. So, so it's, it's more about conversations and, and learning to talk to people and dealing with, dealing with personalities as well. That's, that's was really important.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Brilliant, thank you so much for sharing. So a question to both Chucks and Sam, do you think there are any kinds of supports that you've had in your life that were a factor in you being successful in your current jobs?  

 

Sam Bryant: 

So is there anyone who has supported me in my life and helped me to be successful? I would say well, initially my parents in terms of installing values into me that have made me want to be the best version of myself, who have, they've made me feel like nothings impossible to achieve. 

 

They helped to install values in me, make me bold, confident and just positive. And they made me a nice young lady who's good at communicating. And then along my career journey, I would say there have been a few people in GDS who have really encouraged me, especially along my journey to becoming a Delivery Manager - so I'm always thankful to them. And I feel like some of it's really internal and kind of spiritual, like, yeah, I feel that my connection, my religious connections helped to install lots of confidence and self-belief in me that helped me to naturally just push forward for myself as well. So, yeah.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, that's actually a really interesting fact, you're talking about religion, because I think support can come not just from people, but also from networks for instance. So, yeah, Chucks, if you've got any reflections on that, I'd be really interested.  

 

Chucks Iwuagwu: 

Again, very similar to Sams. I'm a person of faith and, a person of Christian faith, have very strong connections with with the church. And, you know, people might some people know this, but I'm a first generation immigrant. So family network has always been at the heart of everything. I'm the youngest of seven - and my brothers and sisters have just sort of spurred me on to to to strive for excellence. One of the things I have experienced being a first generation immigrant is that I am conscious that I have been given an opportunity, and being in this country for me is, I am, you know, eternally grateful, you know, that that those who were here before me have built a platform that has enabled me to-to flourish. And I have this sense that I have to contribute to making that, making this place a better, a better place, not just for myself, but for all people, you know, all people irrespective of their backgrounds and irrespective of, of, of where they've come from.

 

But on GDS particularly I have found the support of the Deputy Director for Delivery absolutely of great value. I-I you know, this person has become somebody who has inspired confidence in me, has enabled me to understand the Civil Service. And I think everyone, BAME or not, need to have people who inspire confidence in you. You know, the director of GOV.UK has some great ambitious plans for GOV.UK - and each time I talk to her about these things, I feel, wow, you know, you've got these ambitions, which means I can have ambitions for for things, for people, I can do this, you're doing it, I can do it

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Yeah, it sounds like mentorship is a through line. So obviously, I hope you are happy where you are, even if it's a way station on what's next, but if you could change one thing about your career, would you? And what would it be? I think Chucks, you've got something on your mind on that front, don't you?

 

Chucks Iwuagwu: 

Yes. I actually set out to becoming a doctor. If I can change something in my career now, I'll tell you what it is: I-I would not leave, you know, delivery, I would not change career at all. What I would like is to have had, or to still have the opportunity to gain a bit more learning that would enable me to do a bit more teaching, you know, and coaching. That is the bit of my job that I love so much - is that, is that bit of helping people, supporting individuals or teams in-in realising their potential. I-If I could change anything, it would probably spend some time learning how to be a better teacher. 

 

Matt Card: 

Sometimes I think everything happens for a reason, you know? And I struggled in a part of my career for, for a big part of my career. Some of that was because I moved up to Manchester by myself. I moved away from my support network. I learnt about resilience at the BBC and went on a course and it was really good. And what I realised is that I had lost a lot of confidence. And, you can break resilience down into many different parts, but there are four components, main components of resilience, and that is: confidence, adaptability, purposefulness and social support. And we all have a different varying range of all of these things. So I can safely say that most, most of my social support - and that's a lot in like our community, right? You know, it's our parents, Christian Faith, used to go church all the time, and that, we're centred around family, very centred around family. Other cultures too, not saying we're the only one. But I moved away from that. So then when things got a little bit tough, they got really tough, you know, so struggled for a bit.

 

But I would say if I could change anything, but I don't know if I would, it would be learning and realising my strengths earlier, because I've got a lot of strengths, and learning that failure isn't a bad thing. I took me a very long time to learn that failure isn't a bad thing.

 

And also, actually, Chucks mentioned it I think: the, the mentors. I didn't believe in mentors before I went on this resilience course, I thought I was fine. And then I was, when I went, I was like 'whoa. I'm not fine'. So it's like mentors - I work with a gentleman now called Phil Robinson. We just delivered a talk on Tuesday called 'Decommissioning: an engineering guide to decommissioning systemic racism', and it went down really well. The-the first person, Mark Kay, was the first person who I spoke to and explained to him exactly how I felt. You know, the pressures, the, the extra cognitive load that we go through, you know, the running things through a filter just to make sure that we're saying something quite right, wondering what if we're saying something quite right, wondering if someone in the room is shutting us down because of the colour of our skin or something like that - all of these things were rolling round. He was the first person that said, 'you know what? That's not right, you know. And I think we, we definitely need to do something about that'. 

 

Some people don't think it's like their place to get involved - Like 'oh, who am I to do this?' When I was like, no, no, no, no, help, we need your help, right? We need allies.

 

Obviously my dad. He's, he's the reason why I'm who, how I am right now, you know. He always used to talk about fellowship and all of this, and I'd be sitting 'oh no dad. What you doing that?' But now I'm talking about fellowship because you know what he used to do: he always used to ring up and talk about, and, and find out how people are doing. What do I do now: everyday when I wake up, I go on WhatsApp:' how are you doing? How you doing? How you doing?' And I just c-continue my day. So dad's very, very strong influence to me. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

There are a lot of nods in this conversation through what you've been saying, so I can see everybody's relating to it. And it sounds like you have a really great network of people supporting you, rooting for you - I'm, I'm very happy to hear that. Sam, any reflections from you? If you could change anything, would you? 

 

Sam Bryant: 

So I think Chucks and both Matthew have reflected on things that I would agree on and things that have resonated with me. In addition, I probably would have changed how quickly I took my career seriously. Initially when I joined the Civil Service until I found my niche which was delivery management, I nat-I didn't like necessarily see all of the opportunities that were directly in front of me. So even though I was doing my job amazingly, I wish, I wish, I would like to say I wish other people like saw it and was like, 'you know you're, like you could do way more than this. And someone did eventually, but it was like years later. But taken the onus on myself, like, I wish I was just like, like, 'let me see what else GDS has to offer'. And like, you're definitely interested in technology, and there are probably some non-technical roles that would suit to the T. So to, I wish I just did that kind of investigation piece a lot quicker.

 

I also don't feel like, I feel like everything happens in time and everything happens for a reason. So I'm sure my energies were invested elsewhere that it needed to be at that time. So, yeah, now I'm super focussed and I know exactly what my position is, where my skills lie and what I can offer to the tech industry as a Black female. So, yeah, that would be mine.  

 

But like Matthew said, I'm a bit of a perfectionist. So failing fast was hard for me to learn because I want everything to be perfect before I try out. So yeah, learning about that has literally revolutionised my life inside and outside of work. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Just a quick dive into it before I go on to the next question, but you mentioned being a perfectionist and I think Chuck's had a similar sort of conversation earlier. Do you think that is to do with your cultural background as well, that you feel like you've got to meet expectations and surpass them maybe? 

 

Chucks Iwuagwu: 

Yeah, I-I mentioned one of seven children, and the least qualification amongst us is Masters degree. My mother was a headteacher, my father was a Nigerian government permanent secretary. So, yeah, there, there is this thing about the drive to achieve excellence. My mother would say, you know, whatever you become, you would have to become by yourself. Nobody would give it to you. Go out there and get it. You know, don't wait for opportunities to be given to you - create them, take them, demand them, you know. 

 

It's, it's unacceptable, you know, in my cultural background to, to sit on your hands. It's completely unacceptable. I cannot even conceive it. I really can't.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Those are really motivational things to say. I could see a lot of nodding with that again. I think that, yeah, Matt and Sam might have related to being raised like that maybe - I'm speculating. Let's hear from you both. 

 

Sam Bryant: 

Yeah, for me, my perfectionism definitely comes from my parents and my upbringing. My dad would always be like, if you get 99% on a test, like maybe other families would be like that’s an A, that's amazing, my parents would be like, where, what happened to the 1%? But I still, I-I don't necessarily wish I was brought up any different because I love who I am today. But I definitely know how to amend the things I was taught and implement them maybe in like a different, more creative way to get the same or better outcomes. So, yeah. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, it sounds like you've taken the best lessons from what you were raised like and the best lessons of what you know now and fused them together. That sounds really nice. So, Matt, any reflections on your family?  

 

Matt Card: 

Yeah. So, so I would come from a different angle. It's very interesting. So you get very different variations, and this is really good because I find that with stereotyping, everybody thinks that all Black people are kind like the same and we're not - we're very, very different you know. There's so many different cultures, you know, so many different countries involved in this thing. But one of the things I've always said to people is that, I can speak for a lot of people that I know who look like me - that they've always heard, you have to work ten times harder than your counterparts. And it's like one of the things that it's, it's confusing, and, and I know my parents were trying to put me in a good position so that I would succeed, but then what that actually does that actually starts to set you apart from your counterparts. And it can have a damaging effect because then you go to school and you're like 'right, ok I am different. Why am I different?' And then you're getting confirmation bias by, you know, so like your teachers who don't understand your culture. And unfortunately, that's where a lot of people don't know who they are yet, and they're learning who they are. So, you know, then these confirmation biases are happening, you know on both sides. 

 

So it's, it's kind of like, like what, what Sam said: y-y-you take what the good things and then apply it. Do, do agile with it right - put out some, get some feedback on it and then come back and then say, 'no, no, no. Let's change that here. What's the requirements? What, what was the user feedback? You know, I mean, was the stakeholders one?' And then then go forward again, you know? So that's what I would say. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That was really cool. So our next question, we've had a bit of a look into your past just now, but I was wondering if you've got any idea about your future. Where do you see yourself in 5, 10, 20 years? I don’t want to make any guesses about how old people are so I'm keeping it open for you so you can pick how far into the future you're going to look and what you think you'll be doing at that point. How about we start with Sam? 

 

Sam Bryant: 

Yeah, so professionally I will be some sort of delivery manager head somewhere. I would love to work for a company that has a product that naturally is a part of my everyday life. And then using my experience in private sector come back to public sector, because I do feel like there's a lot we can learn in government from private sector organisations. But again, in turn, there's a lot that private sector companies can learn from government. So I'd love to like bring my expertise externally and then learn some stuff there and bring them back to government. 

 

I also see myself just being more of a head in the D&I [diversity and inclusion] space, especially where it comes to like being influential in terms of Black women in tech, Black people in tech in general. I'm going to be, or I already am a part of Mathew's network. So it's amazing that he's bringing together Black techs, so Black people in tech, so I am absolutely loving that and I'd love to do a lot more. I'm also really into working with organisations and schools, help them to be more diverse and inclusive. And I've done like, this summer, I did, did a session with some teachers with an organisation called Success through Soca, and we ran some sessions to give them ideas on how they can incorporate Black history into the curriculum. So that's really exciting, and I hope like, in the next 5 years we've really established a solid programme that can impact and revolutionise how we do stuff as businesses, organisations, schools, just like Matthew said, like we really can unpick a lot of the stuff if it really is just systemic. So, yeah, those are two highlights of where I see myself in 5 years.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I love it. You're already manifesting your future. That's great. So, yeah, Matt obviously your network was mentioned. What do you see in your future?

 

Matt Card: 

All right, I'll try to keep this quick. So more of the same. Straight up, more of the same. So I'm a software engineer right now. I'm applying for tech role, tech lead roles right now, I'm going to jump because I've realised my power, realised my strength. So engineering manager next, don't know how long that's going to take, probably 2 years on the trajectory that I'm on. And then probably moving up to CTO, Chief Technical Officer, stuff like that. Continue my public speaking and do more of that.  

 

And then beyond there, I'm want to create more networks - I'm, I seem to be really good at creating networks and motivating people, so I just want to do more of that, and, and bringing out the culture. So as I said, I've got a motivational platform, I'm doing work on D&I inside and outside of the, of the BBC. Then I'm running a think tank called Future Spective, where we think about the future. We think about what's going-because a lot people are thinking about the past - which we have to we have to understand where you're coming from, right, and for the present, because there's a lot stuff going on now - but I want people to think about the future as well: what's going to happen in 25 years, 30 years time? How is that going to translate? We, we all need to link up and talk to allies as well, talk to majority groups - just start that conversation. So it's all about that conversation. 

 

Oh, this might sound corny, but I'm going to change the world.  

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I love it, you got to aim high, you gotta aim high. All right. Round to you Chucks.  

 

Chucks Iwuagwu: 

I'm conscious there'll be a lot of people who listen to this who think, 'oh my goodness, you know what's in it for me in the next 5, 10 years?' You know, Black people. And I'm not you know, I'm not embarrassed to say that I'm not quite sure. 

 

You know, I-I hold this role as Head of Delivery for an organisation that has over 200 people in it. I know that I enjoy teaching. There is a lot that can be done in terms of education and and raising awareness. I, you know, when I said I'm very religious, I'm actually in my spare time a Church of England Vicar. So I do a lot of preaching on Sundays. And, and, and I have become this person who wants to bring people to a place where you realise that there isn't actually a need for discrimination. You know, there isn't actually a need for that. There isn't you know, there's no need to feel threatened by somebody who's slightly different from you. So I know what world I want to be in in the next 5, 10 years, I'm not quite sure my role in that. I'm also very ambitious. I know I'm qualified to be a director of a programme but I'm not quite sure how I'm going to navigate all of this.  

 

I have a vision of the world I want to be in - it's an inclusive world, is an open world, is a world where, you know, government services can be accessed easily. I want to educate people about diversity and educate people about how to run good projects, good projects and good programmes. How all of that shapes in the next 5 to 10 years, I really don't know. And, and it will work itself out. But one thing I have to say and I want to say to any Black person, particularly up and coming people who are not sure of what the future holds, is don't do nothing. You know, you may not be sure of what what it is you're going to do and how you're going to get there or your role in all of this, you may not be sure of that. One thing you cannot do is just sit back and feel sorry for yourself. Ask questions, come out and say, these are the things I enjoy, how does this progress? How does this, how do I make a difference? Don't shy away. I don't know what I'm going to be doing in the next 5 years, but I'm not going to not explore what is out there.  

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Great. Wise words. Matt anything to add for the future in Black excellence in tech?  

 

Matt Card: 

Yeah, I just want to echo everything that Chuck just said actually - just keep moving. If you don't know what you want to do, do something big and perfect that because then you've got the transferable skills. You see how we all spoke about what we used to do and now we just do this, and it was just a, it's just a iteration - there we go again - an iteration on what we used to do in a different form, right. So I've got them laughing.  

 

So I'll just roll into my like what I would tell kids is: learn how you learn. That's the simplest thing I can say - just learn how you learn. Don't let other people tell you how you learn because the school system can only teach you in a certain way, they've only got a certain capacity. So you need to learn how you learn what works best for you. Don't discredit the other ways. Keep them there as well and use those as well, because you have to learn, you have to pick up the knowledge from different people, and people then communicate in different ways to you, so you have to understand how they communicating to you, but learn how you learn best. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Very simple. I like it, very straightforward. Yes, Sam, anything from you that you want to pass on to the future stars? 

 

Sam Bryant: 

I would say just work on having self belief. I feel like a lot of things come from within, and I feel like it's really good to work on yourself. You can be around the right people and still not feel great within yourself. You really need to build up your self-confidence so that you don't feel intimidated in any room that you step into, even if you lack knowledge, because having the self-confidence will give you the power and the confidence to ask the questions, the silly question, the question that no one wants to asks, but to be fair half the people in the room want to know the answer to that question. When you just have that natural energy about you, you will naturally just go on that website and look for that networking event or go on YouTube and type in 'learn more about agile' or go on YouTube and find the video about how to get involved in tech or anything that your, you, your heart desires. 

 

So you really work on yourself.  

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thank you all for your amazing advice for any Black people who are interested in working in tech, data, digital, all that space. Do you have any advice for allies? What can we do to support Black colleagues in the workplace? Do you have any examples of exceptional ally action that listeners can take on and think about how they can put it into action maybe. 

 

Matt Card: 

It's roughly the same thing. Have self-confidence because what happens on the other side is that people are like, 'oh I don't want to make a mistake'. Take the same approach that we do here - fail fast. You're going to get things wrong as long as it comes in the right energy, you're going to be able to move on and people who are BAME are going to be able to understand where you're coming from, if it comes in the right energy and, and with the right intent.  

 

You know, do your homework, do your reading - there's loads of resources out there now. Talk to people. But there's, here's one: be slow to speak and quick to listen. Learn from other cultures because you can't manage people from other cultures if you don't know their culture - it's, it's it's almost impossible. Right. Sorry, sorry you can't lead people. You can manage them, but you can't lead, and leadership is different, right. There's a big gap in the middle, so someone has to lean forward first right. You know, some of the peers might be behind the curve and might not understand. Just talk to them as well, you know. Do things, just get yourself in the right frame of mind, practising gratitude is is is number one and just being confident as well. Chucks was confident to say that he didn't know - it's the self belief, he's just like, 'I don't know what I'm gonna do, but I'm going to something.' And that's amazing. If you hear it's slightly different to saying, 'oh, I don't know. I'm not going to do anything'. 

 

Sam Bryant:

For me I would say the first thing is accept that you are an ally. Within this context of race, if you are not Black or BAME, you are an ally, and you should treat that like really seriously. Like I don't have a choice that I'm Black. You actually don't have a choice that you're an ally. And I just feel like everyone in the workplace should take that really seriously. So just start taking action from today. If you are not BAME and you really want to help out, I just feel like everyone should feel like this: everyone, it's everyone's problem to resolve. That, I think that's my main message like, as long as you're in a workplace, you should just be trying to ensure that it's a great place for everyone to work. Whether your BAME or whether you're not.  

 

So yeah, like Matthew said, just reiterate the fact that there loads of re-resources out there. Go to your BAME network in the first instance. If you are an organisation that doesn't have an ally network, like GDS is really good at the moment, we literally have an allies network, but if you don't go to your BAME network and see how you can help out or just be, the be the bold person to start an allies network at your own organisation and bring your peers along the journey too. There's so much you can do, especially do you know what, in line, line management. I know Matthew said there's a difference between leadership and managing and there is, but really take your role as a line manager seriously. Literally, like all of my line managers in my career have not been BAME, and that always like I'm, I'm really always nervous about it because I really want my manager to be a champion for me naturally and take the role really seriously. So if you are a line manager, particularly for, for someone from a BAME background, really do you take that role seriously. Because in a lot of organisations, when it comes to like performance awards and performance ratings BAME people do tend to score the lowest. So we really need to work on how we are line managing BAME colleagues, encourage them, help them to recognise their skills. A lot of us want to be perfect, help us to work on the fact that we can fall fast, encourage us to just go and do random things in the organisation that naturally white colleagues are like naturally, more like risk averse - we're not. We, we don't want to like take risks because we feel that we might get in trouble. Or, yeah, just make sure the environment for your line reportee is one where they can just like flourish. Yeah, that would be my advice.  

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thank you, Sam. Finally, Chucks, any sage words for you to allies in the workplace? 

 

Chucks Iwuagwu: 

Yes, absolutely. I'll start from some, something my father used to say: there are two types of people in the world. Those who listen to hear what you're saying and those who listen to respond. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of people who are not a minority in this country, listen to respond. They're not listening to hear what I'm saying, they're listening to, to give me the script, the answer as per the script. You know, there isn't active listening to hear what, what I'm saying. And when you're not listening to hear what I'm saying, you miss you know, the things that I say that I never say. So you miss you know, hearing what I'm saying, that I don't have the words to express.  

A lot of, a lot of our white colleagues don't know how to listen to us. I had to learn how to listen too, I lived in Scotland for 14 years. I had to learn how to listen to my Scottish friends, not because of the accent, that's nothing to do with the accent, it's, it's, it's to learn expressions, colloquialism - all of that, what people say and what they mean. And then I moved down south. And as a-a-a-a Glaswegian friend of mine gave me a thing that has what English people say and what they mean. You know, when I was go-Chucks this is not Scotland, you're going down south and people are going to say one thing and mean another thing. And I had to learn how to listen.  

 

The other thing I want to say is, as an ally, please don't make assumptions. Assumptions, very bad things. You know unless you're making it in the context of project delivery and you can make assumptions and you come back it up and you can, you know, have your plans in place to respond to the assumptions. Don't make assumptions. Don't assume that because I am you know, I am Black, I-I-I don't have sunburn for instance. You know, that was one had to deal with today with somebody. You know, 'Do you burn? Do you get sunburn?' Assumptions, very bad things. If you don't understand the cultural manifestation of a behaviour, do ask. You know, Matthew's just said it all: read, ask, ask Google.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That's a lot of material for us to go through as allies for you in the workplace. You've given us plenty to work with. Thank you so much for sharing. I can see that it did take a bit of a toll on you as well. And I want to acknowledge that, that we shouldn't be putting this burden on you. But thank you for sharing these resources and tips nonetheless.

 

Hopefully less draining and more exciting for you, this is more about sharing the resources for fellow Black people working in tech. I was wondering if there is anything that, any events or organisations, that you wanted to give a shout out to that listeners can look at, and we can include the details in the show notes and the blog post that accompanies the episode.

 

Matt Card: 

So I just wanted to say, you know, I've got my motivational platform - Release D Reality. The Future Spective is, is brand new - so just watch out for, for that. So that Black tech network group: you can contact me on info@ReleaseDReality.com or MatthewCard@gmail.com.

 

Chucks Iwuagwu: 

I would encourage an eye out for several agile meetups - I’m not sure in the current circumstance with Coronavirus. They’re usually advertised on key major network websites and Twitter, on Twitter as well. So people will do well to look out for such, and where possible, please a-attend. ‘Cause it’s, it’s a really good way to network and to learn and to hear what’s, what’s happening in the industry, what other people are doing, some of the ideas that are coming through.

 

Sam Bryant:

Firstly I’d like to shout out GDS BAME Network, because I think we're doing some amazing things as a community and the anti-racism network as well that has formed this year - I would just like to shout them out because their work has literally been amazing and has changed, changed the culture in GDS essentially, and that has been extremely positive. 

I'd also like to shout out Success through Soca. I work alongside them doing, using Black British history to help to build leadership skills within schools, colleges, and we also work with organisations to help them transform the organisations and allow them to be more diverse and inclusive. 

 

Another organisation I'd like to share, or give a shout out to is Pink Dynasty. They're doing some amazing work in the tech space. They have events with people who are not specifically techies, but want to get into a career in technology. And as I’ve said, I am a Delivery Manager and typically that’s not like a super techie role but definitely is a way to encourage people who have a passion for technology to not be dissuaded into getting involved. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Amazing, these sound like really worthwhile organisations and I really hope that our listeners take a look at them and get involved with them as well. 

 

Thank you so much for sharing those and also for coming on today. You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major pad-you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on PodBean. 

 

Goodbye.

 

Chucks Iwuagwu: 

Bye. 

 

Sam Bryant: 

Bye.

 

Matt Card:

Bye bye.

Government Digital Service Podcast #23: The Data Standards Authority

Government Digital Service Podcast #23: The Data Standards Authority

September 30, 2020

Alison Pritchard:

Hello and welcome to this month's episode of the Government Digital Service Podcast. I'm Alison Pritchard, the Director General at GDS - before taking up appointment at the ONS [Office for National Statistics] as its Deputy National Statistician and Director General for Data Capability. 

 

So I'm delighted that, although I'm moving, I'll still be part of the wider digital and data transformation agenda through ONS’s digital and data services, and our work on data governance boards. 

 

GDS is responsible for the digital transformation of government. As part of that, we’ve set a vision for digital government to be joined up, trusted and responsive to user needs. We're focussing on 5 pillars to get that done, one of which is data - the focus of this podcast. 

 

Government holds considerable volumes of data in a myriad of places. But often this data is inconsistent, incomplete or just unusable. If the government is going to realise the benefits data can bring, we'll need to fix the foundations. And one way of doing this is by focussing on data standards. 

 

GDS is leading a new authority, the Data Standards Authority (DSA), that focuses on making data shareable and accessible across government services. The metadata standards and guidance we published in August were our first deliverable. They cover what information should be recorded when sharing data across government - for example in spreadsheets - to assure it's standardised and easy to use. It's a step in quality assuring how government data is shared. Our focus on standards is one part of the bigger picture around better managing data to assure better policy outcomes and deliver more joined-up services to citizens. 

 

That's all from me. I'll now hand over to Vanessa Schneider, the podcast host, who will be speaking to technical leads from GDS and ONS about how we take this work forward. Enjoy the discussion. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thank you Alison. As Alison said, I’m Vanessa Schneider, Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS and your host today. Joining me are Rosalie Marshall and Tomas Sanchez. Rosalie, let's start with you. Can you please introduce yourself and what you do?

 

Rosalie Marshall:

I'm Rosalie. I'm the Technical Lead for the Government Data Standards Authority. That involves a lot of recruitment, looking and getting work streams off the ground relating to data standards, and just looking at the data standards landscape in detail.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thank you, Rosalie. Tomas, could you please introduce yourself? 

 

Tomas Sanchez:

Yes. So I'm Tomas. I'm the Chief Data Architect for ONS [Office for National Statistics]. And I'm responsible for a bunch of things related to data architecture and data management. So one of those things is the ONS Data Strategy. And amongst the various things that my division in ONS does is best practices around data. 

 

One of the things that we work on is data standardisation. So apart from that, I'm also quite keen, and responsible to talking to various departments across government about all the things that we do with the aim of, you know, being on the same page of best practises and so on. And this is how we got in touch with the Data Standards Authority and other streams in central government.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

You mentioned that your area covers data standards in government. What does that entail?

 

Tomas Sanchez:

So basically, the whole point of standardisation is to make sure that everybody uses the same things, particularly related to data. And it is, it is good that ONS is trying to do this. But we cannot do this by ourselves. Doing this in a coordinated way through, sort of, central authority like the DSA is very helpful. 

 

While ONS has its own standards, to do what we need to do in ONS, there is, we need to agree amongst the different departments of what it is that we are trying to standardise, and the scoping of this and what things we’re doing first and we are doing second and so on is part of what the DSA is about.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Rosalie, so you work as part of the DSA. How do you work together with Tomas on this issue?

 

Rosalie Marshall:

So, yes. So this is a joint actually endeavour between the Government Digital Service and ONS. So we're actually partnering up on the Data Standards Authority. So while we are at the central point in GDS, we are working very closely with ONS and actually a number of our team members will sit within ONS. 

 

The good thing about being virtual is that we've really been able to work very tightly together and department lines haven't played much of a part.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

So, as Rosalie mentioned, the Data Standards Authority is very new. Would you mind sharing with the listeners how it came about? What kicked it all off? 

 

Rosalie Marshall: 

So the Data Standards Authority was kicked off about roughly at what was probably just over a year ago now in terms of idea. So that was done by DCMS, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports, who at that point looked after data policy for government and they worked with a number of departments on this bid, including, it was mainly actually GDS and ONS. So we've been working together now for a while on what this should look like. And since March, it's become a reality.

 

Tomas Sanchez

So when I joined ONS in 2017, apart from looking internally at the office to see what we should do internally for better practices in terms of data management, we also thought that it was very important to look across government and see what other people are doing so we can learn from others and hopefully maybe others can learn from us eventually. 

 

One of the things that we did is setting up the Cross-government Data Architecture Community, which was just a community of practitioners around data architecture and data management, which of course included data standardisation, amongst other things. Apart from this community, we also got involved in a number of forums in central government, looking at data and data usage and data infrastructure and other things, such as, for example, the Data Leaders Network. And it was within these conversations within central government that we got in touch with DCMS and GDS, who were also thinking about how to work on data foundations and data infrastructure for government to enhance data sharing, data interoperability, and just how to use data better in government. 

 

And it was that way that the idea of creating a central authority in charge of fixing one of the fundamental problems of data, which data standardisation tends to be. So as Rosalie mentioned, we worked quite a long time with them for various reasons. Listeners might remember that there was supposed to be a spending review in 2019, which never happened. So that gave us a lot of time to think about how to go, how to, how to do this. And eventually we did put a bid for the budget this year, earlier this year. 

 

And then that's how the Data Standards Authority got funded and the rest is history obviously.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So looking to the future of the DSA, what are your immediate next goals? I know that you've put out pieces of guidance, for instance.

 

Rosalie Marshall:

So the big ones are, we've got an API catalogue that is trying to, it's not a workstream that is actually setting a standard in data, but it's helping us with our journey on standards because we need transparency of where data exchange is taking place. 

 

I think it's important that we mention that, you know, we are looking at data flow as a priority. There's a lot that you can do within departments in terms of governance. But really, we're looking at that boundary and the data exchange that is happening between departments and how we can improve that.

 

So as a first off, you know, we are getting the API catalogue into a service or product that is really worthwhile for departments to use. We want to make sure that there's a lot more uptake of that catalogue on there to increase transparency of development taking place, but also so we can understand the standards that are being used by APIs. So that's one workstream.

 

So one of the big work streams that we got off the ground is relating to metadata standards. And that was a very entry level piece of, very entry level standard, in some ways. We're recommending that we follow schema.org and Dublin Core and also csv on the web. So that's a recommendation that we are now working with departments further along on their metadata journeys. We got a workshop coming up on the 2nd October that we'd like as many people to join as possible to understand where everyone's at.

 

We're also looking at standards in relation to file formats and doing some work there. And then I think there's 2 areas which probably Tomas is best placed to talk about and that’s around what we're thinking about at least. So it's it's probably too early days, but at least we can share some of the thinking that we're doing around some of the identifiers and also data types as well.

 

Tomas Sanchez:

So Rosalie, mentioned about identifiers, I think the overall concept is that something that we call reference data that people might know with different names, like master data or code list or typologies etc. So there are multiple names of, for those.

 

But essentially the idea from this is that there are lists of items or entities that people refer to all the time. So we think there are datasets, for example, many datasets contain address information. So the idea is, so there is only one valid list of all the addresses in the country. So if we will have a reference set of addresses that everybody can refer to, then it will be easier to link datasets amongst themselves that are talking about those addresses, right?

 

And you can make the same case for other types of things, like the standard classifications or lists of businesses or things like that, which government departments refer to all the time to do their work, but that there is not one version of the truth for the whole government just because we didn't get to do that yet together. 

 

And I think that is basically the foundations of making sure that we can link data sets across government more easily. And of course, part of that as Rosalie was mentioning is that you need to have a unique identifier for each one of these addresses or these entities. Right. So this is definitely something that we need to look at as part of the standardising data, but reference data as a whole is, as I said, a key piece of the puzzle to standardise data across government.

 

The other thing that Rosalie mentioned there is data types. So obviously if we are sharing data across departments, which is of a specific type, for example, a date. So if we maintain different standards for dates, so we record the data for different ways for dates, then when we get data from other departments, then we have to transform that into a format that we can use internally. And that transformation, maybe dates doesn't sound very complex, but you have to do this for more complex data - types of data. Then it becomes quite time consuming. 

 

So if we get to manage to standardise data types and then departments are able to adopt this. Again, we are not only helping them on their work, they have to do for themselves so they don't have to think about what to use. So we provide guidance of what data type standards they can use. But also when we get to share data, then we already have the same format that we are using internally. So it's much easier to process.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

The term metadata has cropped a few times now. Can you explain what kind of data that is please?

 

Tomas Sanchez: 

So when people ask me, what metadata is, I always think about, you know, everybody knows libraries. People have used libraries. You go to the library, you have a lot of books in a lot of shelves, and you have to find the book that you are looking for. So the books themselves are the content, are the data. Right. But we need to find a way of finding things efficiently. If we had every book indexed in a different way and we stored different type of information for each book, it would be very difficult to do it.

 

But as we all have been in libraries, we know that you have a catalogue where you go and then you have the title of the book and the author of the book you can search for either you can search for date or you can search for other thing. So that information that we are storing about the book, which is the content, that's what is metadata, so it’s information about the data itself. Right. So. So all the data centre are not books is exactly the same thing. We have to find a consistent way of describing the data so that we can catalogue it better.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Rosalie, would you mind explaining to the listeners what an API is? I hear that's a challenging question. 

 

Rosalie Marshall: 

It is a challenging question just because everyone has a different answer. So an API is just another one of our lovely acronyms that we have in government. It stands for application programming interface, so, and that kinda tells you what it is, it’s the interface for your application. APIs come up in talking about data exchange. 

 

The way I guess you can kind of start to understand it, I think I started to understand it when someone talked to me about an API being like a restaurant menu. It tells you what’s on, what you can have, from an application. So, you know, if your, an API will talk about all the different features within an application that you need to be aware of in order to interact with that. 

 

Vanessa Schneider:
I understand that you're also expecting to set standards for memorandums of understandings, also known as MoUs. Can you please explain a bit more about what that means? 

 

Rosalie Marshall:

So in terms of the MoUs, so they are, you know, those and data-sharing agreements are formed within the public sector when data exchange is being passed from one entity to another. And the difficulty with the landscape at the moment is that the MoUs and data-sharing agreements take lots of different forms, cover lots of different areas. 

 

And it's quite a big undertaking when forming these because legal teams often need to be involved. And there's obviously a lot to think about when we're working on a data-sharing agreement.

 

So it's just really bringing standards to this area so that we can improve efficiency in data-sharing and make it easier for those who want to consume data, particularly on local authorities I think. You know there’s, local authorities are not a big API developers at the moment, but they consume a huge amount of government data from all, all over government and loads of departments. So for them, it's a big undertaking when it comes to MoUs. So actually kind of simplifying the process and all, all conforming to a certain standard and template is a good way forward. So that's something that we're starting to look at.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So, you've touched on a couple of topics, such as the identifiers and transparency, and it seems like ethics are quite an important component of that. I know that in 2018 there was a Data Ethics Framework that was published. 

 

Rosalie Marshall: 

The Data Ethics Framework is not a piece that’s happening in the Data Standards Authority. But it's obviously something that we need to be aware of and tapped into.

 

We are updating a number of different pieces of guidance, for example, at the moment, we're redrafting Point 10 of the Technology Code of Practice, which relates to data. And, you know, we're also updating the government API standards. And so we're working on new guidance and standards as part of the DSA. 

 

And obviously something that we need to be aware of when doing that is the Data Ethics Framework, which is a framework that sets out principles for how data should be shared in the public sector and really builds on the Civil Service Code in some ways, so it builds on the idea of managing data with integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. So it's just, I mean, there's probably other people who can give you better summaries. But, yeah, it's important to be aware of when writing any guidance on data.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

I was just wondering, Rosalie, if you knew of a success that government has had where we've started standardising data. 

 

Rosalie Marshall:

Yes. So there are a number of different successes that we could point to. I mean, there's I think, the API standards were one area that has been very successful in terms of setting central government standards and having other departments follow them. So the API standards were launched in 2018 and have been iterated with the API and data exchange community. But we know that a lot of departments are following these standards and are building their API strategies around them. 

 

The reason why it's important to follow the API standards are for consistency in terms of API development, but also in terms of better data flow because of following the data standards that exist. You know, we refer to the ISO date standard, for example, in the API standards. 

 

It also ensures that APIs are developed securely, that transfer can happen in the right way. And that versioning again, is clear. So, as I said, there are benefits.

 

There's also benefits in terms of findability for following these standards, in terms of people moving around development teams and having the right skills, knowing what skills you need for API development. 

 

So that's one example of where we've been successful in setting government standards relating to data centrally. 

 

There's also examples of government using data where it's a positive experience. And I think that's really around moving to the delivery of whole services. So rather than a citizen having to interact with one department for a particular service, they can just think about interacting with the service and you know, the numbers of departments that help support that service isn't something they need to know about. 

 

So, for example, one of the services that has been on the transformation towards being a whole service is that of the Blue Badge scheme, which is managed by the Department for Transport [DfT] and is a scheme that gives those with disabilities access to restricted parking areas. 

 

So, you know, previously local authorities had to kind of manage the eligibility for this scheme. And, you know, they would have many applications, some that wouldn't be successful. I think they received kind of, around 2,500 applications a month that they had to deal with. But, and then there were obviously lots of different data exchanges that happened with the Department for Transport and local councils, before a Blue Badge could be given to the applicant.

 

But now a Blue Badge user goes to GOV.UK to have their eligibility confirmed. And then an API seamlessly links the customer back to the local council’s case management system for the application process. Once approved, another API links back to the central system, to store the record, and then at this point, the Blue Badge is produced and sent to the customer centrally by DfT. So it's a lot of a smoother system. 

 

And I guess what's next is integration through APIs with some of the other departments that are involved in Blue Badges like DWP [Department for Work and Pensions], which has to produce the letter of eligibility. A citizen needs that to upload onto GOV.UK and like the Passport Office, where you need to provide a picture of you and proof of your identity. So, you know, there's still a way to go on a service like that, but it shows the direction in which, you know, where government services are heading. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thank you, Rosalie. Tomas, I was wondering what kind of challenges do you foresee in establishing data standards across government? I assume with the ONS you interface with a lot of departments providing data. Do you have any idea?

 

Tomas Sanchez: 

So indeed, we do interface with a lot of departments. Obviously doing this at ONS’s scale, and doing this at a government scale is quite a different thing.

 

But I think definitely the area that's probably going to be a challenge is the governance in the sense that we put guidelines of how people, how other departments can approach standardisation, but making sure that people actually or departments actually follow the system, that is is, it is a different thing. Right?

 

So obviously, how to approach this is a delicate thing. Obviously, departments want to continue doing their job without having interference in terms of how they have to do their job. 

 

But we in central government believe that doing this, following certain standards is in the end more beneficial for the government as a whole. And we need to try to put something in there to make sure that these guidelines are adopted. So how exactly to do that? How to incentivise departments to actually do this? I think it's going to be quite a tough challenge. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Would that kind of enforcement lie with the DSA or is it something that can be incentivised in another way do you think?

 

Tomas Sanchez:

I wouldn't like to call it enforcement, incentivising is, is a better word. I think there are different ways of doing it. You think about GDS is already doing this with the IT and digital in different ways. Probably the best way of approaching it is using the existing mechanisms and include the data standardisation within those. So hopefully we can exist, we can reuse existing things without having to add new layers of complexity to how certain things are incentivised. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I can tell that you're both very passionate about data and making sure that government has usable data and is able to share data with each other to make it services better for citizens. I was wondering, where does that come from?

 

Rosalie Marshall:

Personally, like, you know, you'd have lots of circumstances in your life. And I guess some people have more interactions with the state than others. You know, depending on your health, you know, whether you have kids.

 

And I guess, like, I've probably had a fair amount. So it comes from just understanding that frustration of another organisation having data about me that might not be accurate or that, or them not having it at all. And I'm wondering why that is. You know, I've had 2 kids on the NHS system. It was frustrating to me, for example, that the hospital didn't have any of the records that I’d had my first child with. And there was no way to get those records. So I then started creating my own records and holding all the data myself. 

 

And there's so many examples that I've gone through. And I'm sure you know, there's so many people in this boat and it's just wanting to fix things and wanting to make data work for the end user. 

 

But also, as a civil servant, I see silos and it's sometimes frustrating when you realise that, you know, through no fault of an individual, because this is just as we know, this is the system that needs improving, it's not one organisation or individual. We just need to fix this. So, so if we can create standards that everyone can use and that's why we're focusing on international, on open standards, because those are the ones that can cross boundaries and that, you know, it's not just going to be working in one department, but it will help join up both central and local and the wider public sector. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thank you. Tomas, is there maybe a service that you hope you are able to change through the standardisation of data?

 

Tomas Sanchez: 

So I think data is such at the core of everything that not only government, but every organisation in this country does, that having a right way of standardising the data and making the data clear so everybody can understand it better will basically, virtually benefit, not just the organisations themselves that are doing the services, but also the users of those services.

 

And if we think about government and we see government as an organisation which provides services to the users based on data that actually government collects from the users themselves. Then you need to have some opportunity to enhance that service. And that's exactly what we want to do.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Rosalie, any thoughts? 

 

Rosalie Marshall:

I think, you know, yeah, I would agree with Tomas. I think there’s a lot of priority areas that that need improvement, for example, social care. You know, I talked about delivering whole services for users and things like the Blue Badge scheme, which is, which I see as very important. 

 

But there's also, you know, bringing, you know, the social care, those departments that are involved there and allowing them to share data to help those who are vulnerable. There's also a lot, you know, in terms of the environment where, you know, sharing data between the energy sector and you know Ofgem and some of the big energy companies, there's a huge amount there that we could do with improved data standards as well. 

 

So I think there's so many things that we can make better in public life with data if it's done right. And so, yeah, just I mean, I can’t pick one area really. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That was unfair of me. I'll give you that. You mentioned it earlier, there was a way for listeners to get involved, if I'm not mistaken. Could you please remind us what that opportunity was? 

 

Rosalie Marshall:

There’s quite a lot of ways people can get in touch. There's a number of workshops that are coming up that we'd really like cross-government engagement on and attendance. 

 

So we've got an API catalogue workshop for the API community. We also have a metadata workshop coming up on the 2nd October for those who are working in metadata and we're planning to blog a lot more about the work that we're doing. So we invite people to comment on those blogs and get in touch if they want to talk to us. We're also looking at having an open repo on GitHub to help share some of our work and invite feedback on that as well. So, yeah, we're hoping to make it really easy to contact us. And we do have an email address as well that people can write to, which is data-standards-authority@digital.cabinet-office.gov.uk. So that’s also open to everyone to use.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thanks, Rosalie. It's not the easiest one to spell out, but we'll make sure to include it in our show notes. 

 

I really appreciate you giving me your time so that we could record this episode. Thank you so much to all of our guests for coming on today. You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. The transcripts are available on Podbean.

 

Goodbye. 

 

Tomas Sanchez: 

Thank you, bye. 

 

Rosalie Marshall

Thanks so much for having us. Bye.

 

Government Digital Service Podcast #22: Content Design

Government Digital Service Podcast #22: Content Design

August 27, 2020

Laura Stevens:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service Podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I'm a Creative Content Producer here at GDS. And for this month's episode, we're talking about Content Design. We're going to find out what it is, how it helps government and where you can learn more. And to tell me the answer to these questions are Amanda Diamond and Ben Hazell. So welcome both to the GDS Podcast. Please could you introduce yourselves and your job roles here at GDS. Amanda first. 

 

Amanda Diamond:

Yeah, hi, Laura. I'm Amanda Diamond and I'm Head of GDS Content Design and Head of the Cross-government Content Community. I joined GDS in 2016, so August 2016, in fact. So it is 4 years exactly that I've been at GDS. Last year I went on loan to Acas as their Head of Content to help with their digital transformation. And prior to that I have worked in journalism. So I started out as a journalist. Prior to GDS, I worked at Which?, the consumer association, as their Deputy Editor for Which? magazine, Deputy Editor for their travel magazin, and I helped launch and run their consumer rights website as their Consumer Rights Editor.  

 

Ben Hazell:

Hello, I'm Ben Hazell. I'm a Content Product Lead here at GDS on the GOV.UK programme. I currently work on a team dealing with Coronavirus Public Information Campaign. In the recent past, 5 months ago, I was working on the EU Exit Public Information Campaign. And prior to that, I've been working on the means of publishing and production for content on GOV.UK, looking at workflows and providing the tools and data that help people manage the content on GOV.UK. Prior to that, like Amanda, I was actually in journalism. I worked on a big newspaper website for about 9 years.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So thank you both for introducing yourselves. And I want to start with the first of my questions which is, what is content design?  

 

Amanda Diamond: 

I don't mind starting, and that is a great question, Laura, and one that I love to answer. So basically and I'll tell you for why, people often confuse content design with different things, mainly comms. They also think that content design is just about the words. And of course, words are really important and content design is you know concerned with words. But it's not the only thing when you're talking about content design. 

 

So content design could be a map, it could be text on a button or a sign. It also includes things like charts or graphs. Content design is about packaging up the right information in a way that makes it easy for people to understand at the point that they most need it. 

 

So for me, I often tell people that content design is at its core: problem solving. And what do I mean about that? Well, I mean that it's about asking the right questions to get to the best solution for your audience. So the best solution for your users. So asking questions like, well, what do our users need to know? What do they need to do? And what evidence? - it's all about the evidence - what evidence do we have to support what we think our users need to know or need to do? Because there’s a big difference between what we think our users need, and what they actually need. And that can often confuse things. And we also ask things like, how can we make the overall experience better for our users? So before Content Designers even put like a single word to a page, what they need to do is like dedicate a lot of time, a lot of effort to understanding the problem in the first place so that we can give people what they need. 

 

Ben Hazell: 

Yeah, and I definitely, I agree with all of that. There's no doubt that there's a fair chunk of writing in what we do. But it's also about use of evidence, about research and about iteration, about constant improvement. And I think a lot of it comes back to being humble about understanding that it's not about what we want to say, it's about finding out what people actually need from us.

 

We're trying to make things simple. In my teams, we often talk about making information easy to find and making sure information is easy to understand. And making things simple - that's not dumbing down. That's actually opening up and being able to process complexity and distill it down to what other people actually need to know and can act upon. That is both important and rewarding. And it's often the kind of fun puzzle and it can be as much about what you're getting rid of and pruning down to find the shape. So perhaps I could compare it to sculpting. You know, the thing exists in the centre of the marble and you just keep chipping away to get to the beautiful thing that people need.

 

Laura Stevens: 

I did enjoy the sculpture one as well because Amanda you're coming to us from an artist's studio as well. So clearly there's something in this recording.

 

Amanda Diamond: 

And interestingly, my other half, he -it's not my studio, my artist studio, I’ll hasten to add, if only! It’s my partner’s and he is a sculptor by trade. So yeah, full circle. 

 

Laura Stevens:

  1. So now we know what is. Let's go back in time a bit. So GDS is actually the home of content design in the government too as the term and the discipline originated here under GDS’s first Head of Content Design, Sarah Richards. And why do you think it came out of the early days of GDS?

 

Amanda Diamond: 

So really good question. And I think it is really useful for us to pause and reflect and look back sometimes upon this, because it's not, you know, content design, as you said, it came from, as a discipline it came from GDS.

 

So really, it only started to emerge around 2010, so 2010, 2014. So in the grand scheme of things, as a discipline, it is very young. And so it's still evolving and it's still growing. And so back in the early 2000s, before we had GOV.UK, we had DirectGov. And alongside that, we had like hundreds of other government websites. So it was, it was a mess really because users had to really understand and know what government department governed the thing that they were looking for. 

 

So what GOV.UK did was we brought websites together into a single domain that we now know of as GOV.UK. And that was a massive undertaking. And the reason for doing that was was simple. It was, it was to make things easier for users to access and understand, make things clearer and crucially to remove the burden on people to have to navigate and understand all of the structures of government. 

 

So back in the early days, GOV.UK, GDS picked I think it was around, I think it was the top 25 services in what was known as the Exemplar Programme. I think things like that included things that Register to Vote, Lasting Power of Attorney, Carer's Allowance. And so I think through that process, we, we, we discovered that it actually wasn't really about website redesign, it was more about service design. 

 

And that's where content design and service design, interaction design and user research kind of came together under this banner of user centred design because you can't have good services without content design essentially. All services contain words or images or artefacts, content artefacts, workflows, journeys, and so you need a content designer to help build these. So I think that's kind of where it, where it sort of emerged from. 

 

But really, fundamentally, with a relentless focus on putting the user at the heart, heart of everything, rather than always relying on what government wants to tell people and what government wants to, to push out to folks. It was a sort of like a reversal of that and a relentless focus on what folks needed of government and what folks needed to, to understand and learn to do the things they need to do as a citizen.  

 

Ben Hazell: 

I felt what I could add to that is perhaps my journey into content design and how I came to understand what GDS was doing, because in the late 2000s, kind of 2008, 2009, a lot of my work in newspapers was around search optimisation. And that was quite a big change for that industry, because instead of everything being based upon some kind of monthly reports of sales figures and editors who had a kind of supernatural knowledge of their reader base, suddenly you actually were presented with almost real time data about what people were looking for and interested in. 

 

And sure, there were all the criticisms about tons of stories about Britney Spears all of a sudden, but what it actually came back to was you could see what people wanted to find out from us and we could start to model our online content around what people's expectations were. And it opened up a really interesting era of kind of experimenting with formats, experimenting with the ways in which news content was produced. 

 

And from there, I started to kind of get quite interested in what I could see GDS was doing and they were winning awards at that time for user centred design because it was taking that evidence base about what people actually need for a variety of digital mechanisms and applying it to create not just pieces of content, but structures of content that better serve people. And of course, it was wonderful to move from the media over to somewhere like GOV.UK, which is not beholden to advertising.

 

So it was that combination of the availability of digital data and being able to more effectively get to what government wanted to happen, because this is also all about not just about making things simpler for users, but making things simpler for users has great benefits for government. If you make things easy for people to do, you reduce any burden on support services, you increase the level of compliance, they're happier. It's more cost effective for government. 

 

Amanda Diamond: 

I don't have exact figures, but I, I do know that savings in the millions have been made because of, as Ben rightly describes, our reduce on support services, calls to contact centres and enabling people to do the things they need to do more easily and to self-serve. And so, I mean, that's a huge, that's a huge benefit not just to government, but to the taxpayer, to the public purse. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And I think one example of content design that has also got a bit of attention recently was the Sara Wilcox NHS blog on the language of health and why they need to be searched and found using pee and poo, people understood that and that is a huge benefit that people will search that and that will help their health. So I think as well as saving time or money, it's also directly making sure people get the information they need when they need it at those urgent points. 

 

Amanda Diamond: 

Exactly. If you think about the history of language and the history, sort of professional or sort of authoritative language - it’s, it's lofty and it is full of jargon and it is full of often if you think of legal, the legal profession is full of Latin terms and even science as well it’s full of, you know, the medical profession is full of Latin phrases. 

 

Now, that doesn't do anybody any justice because it is just putting up barriers for people to be able to understand and act on. And so what we do as content designers is we and, and that blog that you talked about, Laura, is about reducing those barriers and really sort of democratising language - like language is for everyone. And we shouldn't be, we shouldn't be sort of putting those barriers in place. We should be trying to break them down. 

 

Ben Hazell: 

Yes. And I'd say we have to also we do think about the audience for any given piece of content. So it's not that there's a general fight against technical language. Sometimes something has a precise term and a precise name, and that is the efficient way of communicating it that's right for the audience in question. 

 

But on the other hand, what we also know and we have evidence to show this, is that there's this assumption that as people pick up more professional skill, they like more and more verbose language, which seems exclusive. Whereas actually the opposite is true. People in high skilled professions, highly qualified professions, often want things to be simple because they don't want to have to spend their time unpicking complex documents. They need to get on with their job. So, yes, we use technical language where it's appropriate to do so. But we're also always looking to make things simple whilst also keeping them precise. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Picking up on what you’re both just saying, and I just want to talk about the link between content design and accessibility. We should always think about accessibility with everything GDS does because people don’t have a choice when they interact with government, they have to use our services. They can't shop around. So would you would you talk about how the language being used helps with making sure that we don't create any barriers unnecessarily to services?

 

Amanda Diamond: 

Yeah, absolutely, Laura. I mean, like accessibility is, I think really is at the heart of content design as a discipline. If you make things clear and simple, that means writing things clearly and simply in plain language and in language that users use themselves. 

 

Also, I think people, people make a mistake and often kind of confuse what we mean by accessibility. Accessibility is not something that is just for a certain group or subset of people. Accessibility is about catering to everyone and all of the time. So there is a difference between, you know, there might be people who have permanent accessibility needs, there might be people who have some temporary accessibility needs and there might be people who have situational accessibility needs.

 

And the great example that I can point to is, you know, somebody who has got - who’s had an arm amputated. That is one that that is a permanent, that is a person with a permanent need, accessibility need. Somebody that might have sprained their wrist or broken their wrist. And so their need is temporary, but they still need, they might still need to access and access our services. And then there's a sort of a situational need as well. So, you know, if you're a parent and you have to hold a child, well, you have to do something quickly, then you are impaired because you are holding a child and that’s situational, that's not going to last, but you still may need to you know, do something in that time. 

 

And the same thing goes, I think, for sort of cognitive access needs as well. If we are, you know, if, if we are writing in language that is convoluted and verbose and lofty, we are unintentionally creating barriers to people who might have cognitive challenges or who might have dyslexia or people who who are just reading at speed and need to do something really, really quickly and access and sort of comprehend something really, really quickly. 

 

So, yeah, I think like accessibility for me, beyond the legal requirements that we have, we know that there are new accessibility requirements coming into force on the 23 September this year. It's beyond for me, beyond a legal duty and it's also a moral duty as well. And I think that should be at the heart of everything that we're that we're doing as government. 

 

As you said, Laura, people don't have a choice other than to interact with government. People are not looking at the GOV.UK website and hanging out in their lunch break and just browsing and having a good old read. People are coming to our site because they need to do something because government has mandated that it's a legal requirement to do a thing or to get, you know, get document to do a thing or whatever it might be. And so it really is our duty then if we're making people do these things that we have to make the information in the ways in which they need to do these things as simple and as clear as possible. 

 

Ben Hazell: 

I would agree with all of that, I’m reminded of that phrase, ‘this is for everyone’. I specifically work for GOV.UK, which is always worth mentioning is just one highly visible part of what GDS does. But GOV.UK as a platform is designed to be very, very adaptable. So all the information that is published should be in a clean HTML form, which can then be picked up and experienced in different ways. Now, some of that is going to be about assistive technologies, but actually it also speaks to the need for people to come by information from GOV.UK in a variety of different ways now.

 

So by having properly structured clean text, we can work with voice interfaces. We can make sure that Amazon, Alexa or Google Home can interpret our information. We make sure that a Google search results page can quickly deliver a quick answer to a person. We make sure that content can be syndicated out through API so it can be republished by other organisations who might have closer contact with people who need it. So we can syndicate things very efficiently in a structured way over to organisations like Shelter or Citizens Advice if they were able to make use of it. There's a lot to be said for the platform itself being quite an open platform which can easily be adapted upon.

 

One interesting thing about coronavirus content has been the accelerated shift in the mobile audience, as you might imagine, with everybody staying at home, they're not actually accessing the internet quite as much on work computers. And we saw at the peak up to 90% of all traffic to coronavirus information was coming from smartphones. Now, we've long on GOV.UK practiced mobile-first design, but something like that really draws attention to needing to communicate clearly and put things in a logical order for people viewing it in a single narrow screen. So when we talk about accessibility, another thing to think about is just the sheer movement to a mobile audience. And what that actually means for how we produce things. We simply can't get away with big charts or diagrams that are only designed to be read on a work computer screen. People are using their mobiles at home and that's what we need to design for. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And sort of I thinking about, Ben, what you're saying about your SEO, your search engine optimisation experience earlier, also content design surely helps like how, where to find all this information on GOV.UK. 

 

Ben Hazell:

We're in a time with coronavirus and the EU Exit when lots of things are changing quite rapidly. I think some of the most exciting things we've been playing with on GOV.UK is around adaptive content, about the fact that there are many variables. So the guidance for any one person needs to follow could vary quite a lot based on their individual circumstances. And we've been doing more and more with experimenting with content, which actually asks the user some questions so that we can understand exactly what their needs are and then modifies and adapts the guidance to give them just the elements which are relevant to them. 

 

So one of the most interesting examples of that has been the Get Ready for Brexit campaign or which we refer to as the EU Exit Checker. The Brexit Checker is about, is about asking people to help us understand exactly what they need and only showing them the information which is relevant to their circumstances. So it makes - it drills the information down to just what they can act upon without needing them to wade through lots of supporting material. And it also can join up quite effectively lots of related documents that relate to the task they have in mind. So they're not having to look up one list over here to see if they are included in the category and another list over there. That's a challenge across government. And I think adaptive content is a really exciting opportunity. And we've been trying lots of things and we've been making mistakes and we've been learning a lot of things. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Well, that's led me nicely on because I was going to ask actually what are some of the challenges you've both faced in your career as content designers. Is, is it something to do with the, perhaps it's an emerging discipline, so you're working with people who are unfamiliar with what you do or what you're trying to do? Or is it something broader than that? Or yeah, what challenges have you come across when working in content design? 

 

Ben Hazell:

An interesting challenge I'm aware of at the moment is recruitment. Is how do we expand the pool of people we're bringing in as content designers? Because I did a lot of work, that was probably content design adjacent in various roles, often job titles I got to make up because professions didn't exist. And it was very late in my career in newspapers that I’ve ever heard of the term content design. And I think we can do a better job. And we're definitely doing a lot at the moment with running events. But we're trying to widen access to content design to help people who have things to offer, map what they already can do and their skills to the sorts of things we're looking for. 

 

There's quite a wide variety of skills which can blur into it, and we have colleagues with a wide variety of backgrounds, because these are overlapping skill sets, they are thinking about an audience or user need and how things can be communicated and how you can better understand people. So that's a really interesting challenge for me. How do we widen the pool from which we are drawing people in to both increase our diversity and also make sure we're getting the most skilled people we can get because it's really important work and we need we need people who are going to really thrive on it. 

 

Amanda Diamond:

Yeah, that's a really great point Ben. And as Ben said, we are we're doing quite a lot at the moment in this in this area, both, as Ben said, to bring in diverse voices, but also to bring in people from underrepresented groups into the profession.

 

There are lots of different routes into content design and the skillset is varied. And so I think, again, in the way that I think it's incumbent upon us to educate, you know, within government about the value of content design, I think we also need to think beyond government and talk to sort of a wider pool of people, wider audiences, about what content design is and how, you know, what transferable skills, skills are useful. 

 

To that end, we've been running with our UCD, user centred design colleagues, careers events and we're actually going to run a content design careers event so dedicated for content design.

 

And it's also probably worth saying as well that the actual profession, the discipline as itself, is changing. As Ben mentioned, this idea of structured content, of serving up content to people that is configured to their specific circumstances - there’s quite a big technical element to that as well. And so I think content designers of the future, I would certainly encourage them to to be more technically minded and also to look across different disciplines.

 

So, yeah, it's an exciting profession. And it's exciting time, I think, to be in content design. But it's changing as the world is around us. And so I think we need to be adapting to that and looking ahead to what the profession needs so that we can be equipped as government to continue providing, you know, excellent digital services to our citizens.

 

Laura Stevens:

And talking about new ways in which you're reaching out to people to speak about content design. I also wanted to talk about The introduction to content design course. And I've got it a clip now from our colleague, Agnieszka so I'll just play this.

 

Agnieszka Murdoch:

So my name is Agnieszka Murdoch and I'm a Content Learning Designer at Government Digital Service and I'm part of the content community team.

 

Laura Stevens:

And what are some of the things you've been working on during your time over the past 8 months or so you've been in the Content Community Team?

 

Agnieszka Murdoch:

Yes, I started in January this year and basically I sort of jumped straight into working on the introduction to content design course scheduled to go live in May. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And so what is the course?

 

Agnieszka Murdoch:

Yes, Introduction to content design is basically a course hosted on FutureLearn, which is a social learning platform with approximately 12 million registered users. The introduction to content design open course that we launched in May actually had just over 11,000 learners register, which was fantastic. 

 

And it's basically an introductory course for anyone who's interested in user centred content design. We teach people about things like how to think about your users, how to do user research a little bit, how to design and kind of clearly structured easy to read accessible content, how to write in plain English. We also cover topics like evaluating the success of your content and managing the content lifecycle. So a wide range of topics. And it's basically a self-paced course, it’s divided into 4 weeks and learners can kind of do it in their own time.

 

Laura Stevens:

And you mentioned there that 11,000 people did the course when it was launched in May. So who were these people? Who can do the course?

 

Agnieszka Murdoch:

The original pilot of the course was just for those working in government, whereas the open course that we launched in May and that we're now launching the second run of is open to anyone who's interested in content design.  

 

So this will be obviously colleagues from different government departments. There will be people working in local government as well. Other public sector organisations as well as the private sector. And we had people from lots of different places in the UK, all different nations, lots of different countries around the world. 

 

The pilot of the course was intended just for content designers, but this open course actually attracted more people than just content designers and people who have ‘content designer’ in their job title. So it's obviously for those starting out in the role. But it's also for those working in related disciplines.

 

What was also interesting was that was the range of experience among the learners on the course. So even though the course is called an Introduction to content design, we had people who were completely new to the field, but also people who are very experienced. And what we found was that it was sort of equally beneficial for those different groups, regardless of the level of experience they had. 

 

So like I said at the start, FutureLearn is a social learning platform, which means you're not just following the content of the course, but you're also expected to get involved in conversations, to complete tasks, to answer questions and to interact with other learners. And that's part of the learning.

 

Laura Stevens:

And I also saw on FutureLearn you received a 4.5* review from the learners. And so can you talk a bit more through about people's response to the course? Was there anything particularly that went well or anything that needed improvement? And perhaps has that changed as the course has gone from pilot to first opening and now to the second one?

 

Agnieszka Murdoch:

Yes. So we got, we got quite a lot of feedback actually from that first open run, which we did in May. And the second iteration of that we’re working on at the moment is going to be addressing some of those feedback points. So what people really enjoyed were the interactions with other learners, so being able to kind of share experiences, but also read about other people's context. Yeah, the social interactions between learners was something that we got a lot of positive feedback on. 

 

Also, the fact that we conveyed the content through stories rather than just telling people the rules or sharing the theory of content design. I think that was a very important aspect of why people, why learners potentially benefited from the course. Also, the variety of content so FutureLearn is a platform that allows you to add different types of content to it, such as video, audio, articles, polls, quizzes. So I think the variety of content really was a great thing because sometimes it can be quite tedious if you're just going through a self-paced course that just has video or just has articles.

 

And in terms of improvements, we had some feedback on actually accessibility. There was one task that we included that wasn't accessible because it involved highlighting things in green and red. And if you know anything about the basics of accessibility, you will know that that's not very helpful for people with kind of accessibility, certain types of accessibility needs. So that was, that was a mistake that we're correcting. 

 

Laura Stevens:

I also wanted to talk about it being an online learning course, which has always been the case since it’s development back in 2019. Of course given the developments of 2020 with coronavirus and a move of lots of things to remote working or remote learning, but why were you thinking about online back in 2019?

 

Agnieszka Murdoch:

So the main reason, so that kind of if we go back to the pilot, the reason why the pilot was designed was to address some of the kind of practical challenges with running face-to-face training. 

 

So things like obviously the cost. The fact that the trainers would have to go, travel around the country and go to each face-to-face session, kind of separately, train the people there. It costs a lot to travel. It costs, it takes up a lot of time. But also, I think another challenge of face-to-face learning is that you only have access to those people who are in the room at the time the training is happening. Which means that you're not really able to share ideas or generate new ideas as effectively as as you are if you're doing things online and opening it up to thousands of people. The practical kind of challenges and the challenge of sharing were the 2 main reasons.

 

So just to give you some numbers, like I said, we had about 11,500 people enrolled and we were actually only expecting 2,400 because that was the mean number of sign ups in that specific course category on FutureLearn. We had 18,500 comments. So as you can see, this is quite an overwhelming number for a moderator or somebody who's even reading those comments as a participant. But it shows the kind of how active the discussions were and how active the learners were and how much knowledge was shared. 

 

Sixty-seven per cent of those learners were active learners, which means they completed a step and 26% were social learners, which means they commented at least once. So, again, you know, if you're running face-to-face training, you can't expect every single person to contribute. There isn't enough time for that. And also, the different kind of learning styles that people have don't always allow for that. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So yeah, I want to talk about this - the September opening of the course, which starts on the 21 September. And so if I'm hearing you speak about it, and I’m really excited to hear more. How do I sign up? 

 

Agnieszka Murdoch:

Yeah so if you want to join the course, you can keep an eye on the GDS Blog. We will be blogging about how we built the course and how we sort of iterated it. And there will be a link there to sign up. But if you're too impatient and you don’t want to wait for the blog posts, then you can go on FutureLearn and you can search for it there, it's called Introduction to content design.

 

The course is perfect for anyone who is starting out in content design or who is thinking about moving into content design or anyone who kind of already works with content and feels that their work could benefit from learning more about content design. 

 

Ben Hazell:

Yeah, so the thing that put me in mind of was the content design is a set of job titles and a role within the government digital jobs framework. So there's a nice clear job track that you can join. But it is also a set of practises. It's a set of methodologies and a mindset so I think it's a really valuable skill set even if you don't intend to become a titled ‘content designer’. I think you can apply it in lots of ways and this is a great opportunity to dip your toe into those waters. 

 

Amanda Diamond:

And for me, I am just astonished at the number of people who signed up and who are interested and also the number of folks who completed the course as well. And just the level of social interaction that Agnieszka spoke about there. I mean, that is fantastic. 

 

And I think for me as well, it's just about the reach. You know, an online course like this that can scale to this extent would, is, is, is, is the only way we can reach all of those people from different backgrounds, different, you know, different skill sets. And we would never be able to reach that number of people and that volume of people around the world as well if we were just doing face-to-face training. 

 

Ben Hazell:

And most importantly, it can be taken at the user’s own pace and in their own time - they can go back over things, they can expand in particular areas of interest. And I think when you have engaged and willing learners, that becomes a very effective opportunity. And I used to do a lot of in-person training for GDS on content design, but obviously with a reach of more like 12 people a day rather than 10,000. It was always hard with a classroom full of people to meet each of their individual needs and to find a pace that wasn't leaving people behind. And it was also not kind of losing the engagement of the people who were running ahead. And that's where this adaptive content in these online courses can really excel. And I think are really interesting examples of that sort of personalisation of content to people's minute by minute needs and requirements. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes, for sure. And as Agnieszka said, there will be a link to the course on the GDS Blog if you’re interested. And so that's all for today, so thank you both so much for joining me, and to Agnieszka too. 

 

And you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on Podbean. 

 

So yeah, thank you both again. 

 

Ben Hazell:

Thank you.

 

Amanda Diamond:

Thanks Laura, thanks for having me having us.

Government Digital Service Podcast #21: The DDaT Fast Stream at GDS

Government Digital Service Podcast #21: The DDaT Fast Stream at GDS

July 30, 2020

Vanessa Schneider: 

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service Podcast.

 

My name is Vanessa Schneider and I am Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS. Like last month's episode, this one will also be recorded via Hangouts as we're all remote working right now. We're going to be talking about the Digital, Data and Technology Fast Stream experience at GDS. The Digital, Data and Technology Fast Stream, also known as the DDaT Fast Stream for short, is one of 15 different schemes on the Civil Service Fast Stream. Applicants can choose up to 4 scheme preferences when they apply. As a DDaT Fast Streamer you're participating in a four year scheme with both six month long and year-long placements.

 

GDS is one of the organisations in which Fast Streamers are placed. So we will be hearing from colleagues across GDS with experience of being on the DDaT scheme.

 

Clare Robinson

I'm Clare Robinson. I'm a Fast Stream Performance Analyst working on GOV.UK. So that means that I look at the performance data that we have available and try to understand what it is that users are trying to do on GOV.UK, where they're going and what it is we need to do to make their journeys better.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you think that the Fast Stream has lived up to what your expectation was before you applied? 

 

Clare Robinson: 

What I've really loved about working for government is the fact that people don't have another option, like there is no, there's nobody else that can give you a passport. We have to do it. And that confers on us a really different expectation because we can't ever decide that something is too hard. We have to do the best we can for everybody. And that was probably the thing that really defied my expectations. I came in thinking that it would be all about implementing government policy. And actually some of that is true. But most of it is about providing citizens with things that they need from government. And that's really a different mindset, perhaps, than I really expected to have. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you mind going a little bit into detail about the different placements that you've had before arriving at GDS?

 

Clare Robinson: 

So I started as a delivery manager in Bristol working on licencing and permitting services. My role was to make sure that we were delivering those projects on time when we needed to. So I learnt a lot from that, I learnt a lot about agile, so how to manage people in a really productive and sort of continuously improving way. And I learnt a lot about myself, like what I how I work, what I like, what I find more challenging. That led me to my next placement where I went to the Department of Transport to be a User Researcher. And that was really great 'cause I was working on a whole just a massive range of projects.

 

And then I got to go on a secondment. So this is sort of an interesting feature of the Fast Stream is that you can go out to, often to charities or other partners. But I actually chose to go out to industry 'cause that was like I really wanted to take that opportunity just to see how digital services work from kind of a more commercial side. And so I got to go and be a Co-creationion Consultant at Fujitsu. And the kind of work I was doing that was really interesting because I was running what are called design-thinking workshops, which are very much, very much in some ways follow some of the user-centred principles that we have in government, and in GDS - it's all about starting like what do users need?

 

It was really interesting to see how a sort of commercial enterprise used user-centred thinking and design-thinking to sort of challenge both themselves, and the customers that they working with to kind of co-create like solutions to complicated business problems. So that was that was really interesting.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

We often hear that GDS has that perception of being different to the other sort of areas of Whitehall. Have you found that to bear out?

 

Clare Robinson: 

I think the biggest difference, I think, is how how much acceptance people have of kind of agile methodologies, and sort of uncertainty. I think we have to embrace the unknowns and we have to embrace the idea that we're not going to get things perfect the first time round.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I was wondering, is there anything that you would change about your experience so far?

 

Clare Robinson: 

There’s quite an emphasis on leadership and leading teams, but I think that that can sometimes, people who are perhaps more introverted, who perhaps have more technical skills, I think that can leave them behind or leave them with a sense that they're not doing the right thing. I think that I've been really lucky that I've had two really fantastic managers on the Fast Stream who have really helped me understand that that's not the case, and actually that leadership looks really, really different in different places. But I think that sometimes the Fast Stream can put quite a lot of emphasis on showing rather than doing, and I think there are people that are working to change that. 

 

And I think particularly I've been thinking about like what, when we talk about leadership, we often have a model in our mind. And that model is often, often white, it's often male, it's often went to a Russell Group university. And I think that that is a model that we all need to challenge.

 

Jordan Testo: 

Hi. I'm Jordan Testo. I'm a DDaT Fast Streamer currently placed at GDS, working in the EU Transition and Future Relationships Team as the Digital Portfolio Coordination Advisor. Previously I've worked as a, a Product Owner on the tax platform at HMRC. I've worked as a Service Manager at the Home Office and I've been a Programme Delivery Manager at the Ministry of Defence working in Cyber Defence. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

And what caused you to apply to be on the Fast Stream? 

 

Jordan Testo: 

Finishing university, I fancied a challenge. I previously did an industrial placement in the Home Office whilst at university, and I thought, I want to go into the Civil Service. So why not give the Fast Stream a go and develop my leadership skills and see what I can do?

 

So I'm currently coming towards the end of my second year. Currently the DDaT scheme is four years. So I've got another two placements - so the first two years are six month roles, switching every six months, and then the final two years are two year-long posts. So come October, I will be leaving GDS to another department, which as of yet is unknown to me. We find out in about three weeks, four weeks’ time where we'll be moving on to. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: Do you get any choice in that matter or is it very much predetermined?

 

Jordan Testo: 

We get preference forms, so we put in the departments which we want to go to work for, job roles around the DDaT Framework and other areas that we want to develop personally as well. And all those developmental points are looked into as well as what previous job roles I've done. And the matching team then put, match me to a place in which they think benefits me the most in what I want to get out. 

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Is it different working at GDS compared to other departments?  

 

Jordan Testo: 

GDS, it is a total different way of working. It's a lot more accessible, there's a lot more openness in terms of the software we can use, the types of communication methods. But GDS is just, it's such a different place. And what I quite like about it is there's less of a hierarchy as such. Everyone works together to get the job done rather than some of the departments I've been in where it's quite hierarchical. But yeah, I quite enjoy this. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, so obviously it's great to hear that you're having a positive experience at GDS, and with the fast stream. But are there things that you've sort of found a bit more challenging? 

 

Jordan Testo: 

The challenging element of the Fast Stream is moving around every six months. It's been hard for me to let go of some departments, mainly because of the work I've been working on, and I start, I get to the midpoint where we've got a really important milestone or got to important sprint and then I have to go, and I never see the result and not seeing the fruits of their labour as such. Hence why I’m looking forward to having the year-long posts.

 

And I think if someone asked me, what do you think of the Fast Stream, I say, just do it. Apply. See how it goes, because it's just totally worth it. I think that even if you don't get onto it, the application process is really interesting and a really good experience to do. If you get onto it, the Civil Service and the public sector world is open to you. You have a chance to go around different departments, work on different programmes, work with different people in different subject areas, and you build up such a knowledge of overall government - it's, it's priceless, really.

 

Maxwell Reiss: 

My name is Maxwell Reiss. I'm a Product Manager on the GOV.UK programme, and I'm on the Civil Service Digital Fast Stream.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So you are currently a Fast Streamer or have you finished the Fast Stream?

 

Maxwell Riess: 

I am still currently a Fast Streamer. But I am, I am very much an outgoing Fast Streamer. I'm in my third year of the programme and I've just recently, within the last couple of weeks, been offered a permanent role at GDS.

 

Vanessa Schneider: Well, congratulations to the job offer. Is it normal for a Fast Streamer to be offered a job before the scheme finishes?

 

Maxwell Riess:

It does happen. It is, it is very, it is normal. Yeah, I'll go as far as to say it's normal. I think of my cohort, there were about 60 of us that started in year one, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed digital Fast Streamers. And I think of that there are probably less than half that are still on the scheme.

 

Vanessa Schneider: Would you mind telling us a little bit about the placements that you had previously? 

 

Maxwell Riess: 

So way back in September of 2000, was it 17, I started my very first placement on the Fast Stream in DWP Digital in the Portfolio Team. And this was a quite surprising placement to get. It actually wasn't what I was expecting at all because I was working in a private office role supporting a Deputy Director of the digital portfolio. I have had roles in HMRC working on digital services for collecting environmental taxes. I had a role working at the Department for International Trade, working in content on their Brexit transition. So, so I worked on, on policies and content for the public at DIT. And I previously had a role at GDS even before this one. I worked at GDS in GOV.UK in a, in another kind of content capacity, working on what we call mainstream, which is the kind of most popular content on GOV.UK itself and then I came back, I came back to GOV.UK after my last one at DIT.

 

Vanessa Schneider: Were you aware of GDS before you joined the DDaT Fast Stream?

 

Maxwell Riess: 

I, I was, actually. Yeah, I am. I tragically was a bit of a fan of.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Oh! Don't apologise. 

 

Maxwell Riess: 

GOV.UK and of, of, of GDS. I just, you know, kind of struck me as a great a great thing, a good website, a place - and I worked, I did work in digital before joining the Civil Service in the private sector. And it always struck me, guess partly call it good storytelling, branding, propaganda, that that GDS was somewhere that was doing digital and agile well, you know, that it was, that this is where one could go to actually experience these techniques put into action in an effective way. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you mind telling me a little bit about what led you to applying to the DDaT Fast Stream?

 

Maxwell Riess: 

For me, it was very, very directly about wanting to work in the public sector for the public good. I got into technology because I was interested in, I guess, the power of new tools to like shape society and and create the modern world. So I knew I wanted to work in that area. And having had time in the private sector, I became more and more interested in devoting my efforts to something that was going to be for everyone's benefit. And because of the, because of the good that I think can be done there, but also because of the risk as well. I think you know government services still in so many places have a reputation for not being as good. And I think in order to build public trust in our society, we need to have services that people feel like are really high quality. And yeah, I wanted to, to lend my effort to do that. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So you've obviously had a really good experience in the Fast Stream and at GDS, but were there some challenges that you faced? 

 

Maxwell Riess: 

I've said this to other people who are thinking about the Fast Stream and people who are in it who are struggling, by far, the best thing about the Fast Stream is its variability. The amount of different roles you can kind of gain experience in the different interactions you can get, the different circumstances and problems, spaces you'll get exposed to. That's all incredibly beneficial. But also it comes with a huge amount of variance and risk. And so I think that the challenges are all around whether or not you can deal with a slightly, ultimately, you can do you can do anything for six months. I think. And and really, it's about it's temporary. So it's about what you're going to get out of it. And if you think you can get something really valuable out of it, then it's worth sticking with. If not, then you need to be able to be a squeaky wheel and complain and kick up a fuss. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That sounds like a lot of food for thought, then would you change anything if you had the opportunity to do what you wanted?

 

Maxwell Riess: 

I mean, the Fast Stream itself is constantly changing like it is, it is really, you know because Fast Streamers are young and, and they've got ideas. They’re constantly giving feedback on the programme. And I think it can and should change. 

 

Daniel Owens: 

My name is Daniel Owens and I work as a Corporate Insight Lead at GDS.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Did you always know you wanted to apply to the DDaT Fast Stream, or where did that decision come from for you?

 

Daniel Owens: 

Well, I think I think I'm quite an unusual case in the sense that I'm probably a fair bit older than a lot of the other Fast Streamers. I know that the Fast Stream is becoming, it was originally created as a graduate scheme but increasingly it's becoming more of a developmental scheme. I decided to change careers and I was particularly interested in the tech sector. I thought that that is the most exciting and innovative area going forward. But also, I wanted to have meaningful and purposeful for work and feel that I was contributing to something rather than just the bottom line. And I've been particularly happy that I've been placed at GDS, the Government Digital Service, because of their excellent reputation. I have friends in the private sector and they all know about GDS. They know GOV.UK has a very good reputation around the world and in the private sector in terms of producing quality products. So I was quite excited to get this placement. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So knowing what you know now, what kind of advice do you have to somebody who's considering applying to the DDaT Scheme?

 

Daniel Owens: 

It's a tough question. In answering that, I would say, I think that my trajectory as an older, older starter is I would give different advice for an older person compared to a younger person. Because I think if you're straight out of uni or, you know, got just a couple of years of work experience, you're you're still sort of learning the world of work and like learning how to interact in that in that environment and what works for you and what doesn't. So, your sort of, your approach, I think, would be a bit different.

For the son-if, for someone who's older, starting on the DDaT scheme, I would say first things first would be to work out what the key trajectories are, where the key roles are that you could go into, and from day one start thinking about to what extent they fit what you want to do and testing it all the time, like kind of, almost kind of like an agile approach, like a prototype, like going and meeting people.

Vanessa Schneider: 

And is there anything you would change about your experience? 

 

Daniel Owens: 

I think, one thing that and this is advice I've got from a lot of Fast Streamers who are further along, is if the postings not working for you or you don't feel like you're doing the kind of work that is going to develop you, then you should push back and you should you should try and own the role and make the role. I mean, you know, there's going to be some mundane work that you're gonna have to do. It's inevitable. But you should also try and search for opportunities to do innovative, interesting things. And don't be afraid to approach people about that. 

 

James Lovatt

Hi, I'm James Lovatt. I'm one of the Assistant Private Secretaries in the Director General's Private Office at GDS. And I'm on the Fast Stream. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

To start us off. It'd be great to learn from you why you thought you wanted to apply to the DDaT Fast Stream. 

 

James Lovatt: 

So I applied for Fast Stream. I think ultimately for my own personal development. I found the previously I spent eight years working in the NGO sector. But I was really struggling to break through those digital marketing roles into more leadership positions. So I wanted to see how the Digital, Data and Technology Fast Stream could open up that world a bit wider for me, to, to see how the other ways of using digital technology to make an impact in the world.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So your placement at GDS, what stage are you at in your placements? 

 

James Lovatt: 

So I've been on the Fast Stream for two years now. I've been in London for the last 12 months and with GDS for the last six months specifically. This is my fourth posting. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you mind sharing what you've been doing in the Fast Stream so far, what your previous placements were about? 

 

James Lovatt: 

Yes, sure. So I joined two years ago. I started off with HMRC in a very technical team as a DevOps Product Team Lead. It's one of those where you kind of just get thrown in the deep end and you figure it out as you go along. But there was some really good people around me who helped in that journey. And then I moved up to Edinburgh to work in Scottish government as a Business Analyst where we were trying to onboard, or starting the process of onboarding, Office 365 to that 15,000 odd users. And then I moved down to London to work with DEFRA in a more data focussed role. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

And your role right now is as Assistant Private Secretary, you mentioned, right?

 

James Lovatt: 

Correct. Yes. So I'm an APS in a team of about four people for Alison Pritchard. There's two APS's and then there's a private secretary and the head of private office. For me, this is has been the posting which has been most well suited to my career aspirations. I think I came in March just as the budget was being considered. And then within a couple of weeks, COVID also hit. So it also was a very insightful way to see how rapidly government can respond to a crisis, and how many services that GDS personally stood up as well to to make that an effective response. I'm fortunate that I've just found out that it's being extended. So I will be staying here for probably another 12 months as my third year posting as well. So it should hopefully give me some depth into what Private Offices can do. I enjoy seeing how senior leaders make their decisions and the influence and the end result of of that. So within six months, I've started to see the start of that process. But hopefully now I'll start to see the middle and end of some of those processes which I've been privy to so far.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I'm so pleased to hear that that got extended. I was wondering if there was anything you would change about your Fast Stream experience or about the Fast Stream in general if there’s something you've noticed that could be improved?

 

James Lovatt: 

I have had a good experience, but a lot of it's been in hindsight. At the time, it never necessarily felt that every posting was enjoyable for different reasons. But I think that's, because they were challenging me. So it meant that I was going through that growth, which was what I was initially seeking when I came on to the Fast Stream. I would poss-possibly change just how big sometimes the leap is between those and particularly with a six month postings, they don't let you get too grounded.

 

I think the thing that I would change about it is, is some of the changes are already happening around diversity and inclusion. So I think my scheme intake in 2018 is reported on in media as not being very diverse. And that's something which I'm not particularly proud to be a part of that statistic. But it is something that drives the work that I do. So even working with Alison in Private Office, it, it's, it's been interesting to see how we can influence the future of the Fast Stream. And particularly in the last couple of years, a lot of those areas have been improving anyway, but I think there's always a lot further to go in there. There'll be unknowns as well in the future that we're not even thinking about right now. So trying to be ahead of a curve in that respect, in terms of inclusion and diversity rather than just catching up is what I'd like to change about the scheme.

 

Jenny Sleeman: 

Hi, I'm Jenny Sleeman and I'm a Delivery Manager for the GOV.UK PaaS Team in GDS. So PaaS is Platform as a Service. So we are part of TechOps and Reliability Engineering. So our, our team has a platform that then other government services can host their services on our platform. And we look after kind of the security and the management of that platform, kind of providing backend services for all of our tenants. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

As this is our Fast Stream episode, are you doing this role as part of a Fast Stream placement or are you now a graduate of this Fast Stream?

 

Jenny Sleeman: 

I'm a graduate of the Fast Stream. So I graduated from the Fast Stream a couple of years ago. My my last Fast Stream posting was actually at GDS. So I have been a Fast Streamer at GDS as well. But I'm now back at GDS. So yeah, seen it from both sides really. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you mind telling us about your choice to apply for the DDaT Fast Stream?

 

Jenny Sleeman: 

So I applied because I, I suppose I thought it was the most kind of interesting Fast Stream scheme. I was quite keen to pursue a career in the civil service. And I was I was interested in the digital side of things. I was working at Department for Education at the time and kind of we were having a think about some digital projects. So I was I was quite keen to sort of learn more really and try all the different postings.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you mind taking us through the postings that you went through?

 

Jenny Sleeman: 

So my first posting was with Ministry of Defence and I worked for the Navy in Portsmouth. So that was that was very, very different from kind of any of the jobs I'd had before that point. So I started my Fast Stream journey in MOD. And then I also had a posting in HMRC, a secondment out to the NHS, which was brilliant. And then also a six month posting at the Home Office. And then for the one year long postings, I worked for BEIS for one year and then GDS for my final year on the scheme. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So you've been on a secondment. Do you mind telling me what that was like, whether there was a discernible difference to working for a civil service organisation compared to the NHS?

 

Jenny Sleeman: 

Yeah, it was brilliant. In some ways, it was, it was probably the most interesting posting I had because it was so different to what I'd known in the civil service.

 

It, it, I suppose it felt a lot more operational to some of the civil service postings I'd had because we were literally based in, in some offices in a hospital in London. So, you know, you were I felt so much closer to that kind of frontline, frontline workers, and your day to day activities could vary so much from kind of things that would be more similar to my role now kind of, you know, reporting in business cases, but then you could also find yourself actually going into one of the wards in the hospital and speaking to the family of patient, for example, if their surgery had had to be cancelled at short notice and kind of really trying to kind of reassure that that patient's family and the patient themselves. I have the utmost respect for people that work for the NHS because, yeah, it is it is a tough job, I think. Very tough. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Are you still in touch with other members of your cohort?

 

Jenny Sleeman: 

Yes, I am. Again, that's one that's one of the really, really nice things about the Fast Stream that you you start it with this cohort. And you're obviously always at the same point as them. So kind of when you rotate from one posting to another, you kind of have, you know, all of the chat about how has your first week gone? How are you finding things? Yeah, kind of that support was really important throughout the Fast Stream. And it's just really nice to see that the direction that different people have gone off in and kind of obviously some have stayed in government, some work outside government now. But yeah, it's really nice to have that group of people.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

And do you think that you had a different experience going into the Fast Stream because you were already an employee of the civil service? 

 

Jenny Sleeman: 

Possibly. I think I suppose the benefit to me was that I had a year of I suppose understanding how government worked a little bit from working for Department for Education. So I had some kind of prior experience. But as I say, because some of the postings are just so different, you kind of you know, you can work in one department and and working for another department is very, very different. So, yeah, I think if you already work for the civil service, there can be some benefits. But yeah, there's, there's, there's also no problem going in when you haven't worked for the civil service before. 

 

Lewis Dunne: 

Hi everyone. So my name is Lewis Dunne. I'm a Senior Technology Policy Adviser here at GDS. I sit within the Technology Policy Team and my role is focussed on researching, advising, briefing and producing guidance on ways to improve cross-government use of tech. And on top of that, I'm also a former DDaT Fast Streamer. I’m a bit fresh off the scheme, so I left and starting work at GDS in mid-March of this year - I was in the third year of the scheme when I left.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So if you don't mind us casting back your mind to the beginnings of the GDS Fast Stream. I know it's not as long ago as some people who've completed the scheme, but I was wondering if you could share with us why you considered applying.

 

Lewis Dunne: 

Yeah. So that there were a couple of different reasons. I applied in October 2016. At the time I was studying for a diploma in legal practise up in Scotland. I'd most enjoyed working on things that were linked to like public and administrative law, and I think I saw the Fast Stream as a better way of offering a route to be able to work in that broader area of public services a lot more. And certainly the idea of being able to contribute to improving public services felt far more real and more interesting to me than a lot of the more dry stuff that I was studying at the time.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

The law to data, digital and technology, that seems like a bit of a jump. Was there anything that had prepared you for that?

 

Lewis Dunne: 

Yeah. No, it's a good point. So bit of context as well - I do come from a bit of a techie background: as a child, I was very into building websites, continued that at uni. My dad is a telecoms engineer. His dad helped build planes. And just before applying really in the year before my studies, I'd also been working on a research project that was trying to build a database of sort of peace agreements to allow them to be compared. And that was a really interesting use of what was a really interesting ability to actually see a digital system in a different way, helping to analyse a real world problem. So, so my head was very much still in that space.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you mind telling me about your first placements? 

 

Lewis Dunne: 

So I've worked in a number of different places. So five placements in total. They've all actually had a bit of an international flavour, I suppose. I started off at Department for International Trade, working as a content designer on an export licencing programme. I then moved over to the Foreign Office where I was a product owner for their telecom system. I worked at the Department for Transport as a cyber security policy analyst, then back to GDS as a tech policy analyst. And then finally, just before this, I was working at the Department for International Development up in East Kilbride as a product owner, helping with their development data publishing. To some extent of a lot of my roles have been because I've been quite willing just to get my hands dirty and get involved in a lot of different things and also being willing just to be moved around a bit. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

You brought the scheme to an early end by accepting a job offer. Was there anything that you sort of feel like you've missed out on because you've exited the scheme early?

 

Lewis Dunne: 

I mean, the whole thing about the scheme is that it is designed to get people to a stage of feeling like they are empowered and that they can go and make decisions and and lead, because I guess primarily as a leadership scheme, it's about getting, building us up as people. And when I compare where I am now and how I feel and how I act, everything like that to the to the timid, shy guy that walks into DIT back in I guess, like mid 2017, I have I had developed a lot as a person by the time I applied for this role at GDS, so I felt ready in that regard.

 

Vanessa Schneider: Do you wish that you'd changed anything about your experience in the Fast Stream? I know, for instance, some people have gone on secondments to other public sector organisations or charities or even private sector companies.

 

Lewis Dunne: 

I don't think there's any of my experiences on the Fast Stream that I'd want to give up or trade in for something else. I don't feel like any of the things was like a needless waste of time or anything or like not a waste of time, but, you know, was could be swapped out. So it's difficult to look back. And I think in terms of thinking about how we change things over the course of the Fast Stream, there's just a big angle about, you know, you develop so much as a person over those several years of being put into all of these different positions that if I was in different roles, I probably would have handled problems differently, and people acted with people differently in some areas. But I guess that's just part of, you know, learning and growing as a person more generally. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Gosh, that got very philosophical.

 

Lewis Dunne: 

I remember my cohort leader asking me about that. And she had suggested that I go on a secondment and that would have been, I guess, in place of my time at GDS, and I think actually my time I spent GDS helped me identify an organisation that I really I really liked, I really liked the culture and that I wanted to work in more. So if I've had lost that, I guess I would have gained something different. But I think it's, it's helped me get to where I am now. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you think that it was good coming into the Fast Stream out of academia, or do you think that it makes a difference? Or is it just such a scheme that it doesn't matter what your previous knowledge is, you kind of start from ground zero? 

 

Lewis Dunne: 

It's, it's is a really interesting point, because I guess one of the things that I've developed a lot over the last couple years, but I think part of that has just been all these like different experiences, because it's it's kind of like how you imagined the people in Love Island must feel, you know. For you looking in, it looks like it's only a week but I think for them it feels like a year kind of thing. And I think a lot of postings feel a bit like that. You're only there for several months, but it can feel like a very long period of time for you. 

 

And so it does help you build up a lot of experiences and to help me build up a lot of experiences and get a lot of different. It's almost equivalent of doing, you know, like five different mini jobs in the space of, like a couple of years. And I think all of those contributions helped me develop. So I guess if maybe if I'd come into a bit like older and stuff than I might have had a bit more of like a solid base to start with. So, yeah, I, I think it is one of these things where by just so it can be both useful coming from academia and you know, it's also very useful to come in with a broader knowledge of it. I'm sure that will give you a huge leg up. And if people are thinking about like a change of role or a change of like career and things, I think, you know, in terms of getting like a crash course in digital in government, the Fast Stream is a great way of getting that. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thank you so much to all of our guests for coming on today. You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on Podbean. Goodbye.

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